US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference with Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013.
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Russia's proposal to assume control of Syria's chemical weapons is a positive step, Obama administration officials told a House committee Tuesday, but it only happened because of the threat of U.S. force.
Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee that the United States must respond to the Bashar Assad regime's Aug. 21 use of sarin nerve gas that killed at least 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, to show the world that the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable.
Russia's proposal gives all sides a way to avoid military action, Kerry said. "That is the ideal way to handle this," he said.
But Kerry said, the administration has made it clear to the Russians that "this can't become a process of delay and avoidance." The United States, he added, is willing to wait, "but we are not waiting for long. The [United Nations] Security Council can't be allowed to become a debating society."
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced a skeptical committee concerned about the effect of deep cuts in military spending, known as sequestration, and the side effects of any military strike against the Assad regime. Polls show a majority of Americans oppose President Obama's request to seek congressional authorization to attack Syria with cruise missiles.
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Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, questioned whether the automatic cuts known as sequestration would affect the military's ability to strike Syria. The Navy's cost of keeping four destroyers in the region costs about $30 million per week, he said.
"I'm not concerned about this operation," Dempsey said, but future ones might be. "My assumption is if something is in our national interest we can find the money to pay for it," Dempsey said.
Dempsey said the planned strike would be significant and aimed at degrading Assad's ability to use chemical weapons again and to threaten his neighbors. The attack could come in two waves.
Kerry said the threat must remain "on the table" to compel Assad not to use chemical weapons again.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat and ranking member of the committee, pressed Kerry on how leaving Assad in power would hold him accountable.
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"We're taking a stick and hitting a hornet's nest with no intention of killing the hornets," Smith said.
Kerry responded that the administration's approach was not "piecemeal."
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., pressed for answers on the risk of retaliation after an attack.
Hagel said there are risks without taking action as well. No response from the international community to Assad's use of chemical weapons means he will do it again, Hagel said.
Dempsey said the risk was low that Iran, which is backing Syria, would launch a counterattack. But he added, "I can't drive it to zero."
Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY