Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that if the United States fails to punish Syria for using chemical weapons, extremist rebels could hijack the opposition and turn the civil war into a brutal free-for-all.
In an exclusive interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, Kerry was asked about a disturbing video obtained by the New York Times that showed seven captured Syrian soldiers — all shirtless, some tied up — being executed at a rebel commander's order.
Kerry said that if the U.S. takes military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, it would not mean fighters who use brutal tactics become American allies.
"In fact, I believe that those men in those videos are disadvantaged by an American response to the chemical weapons used because it, in fact, empowers the moderate opposition."
Kerry said there are fewer than a dozen "really bad" opposition groups — "jihadists who have been attracted to the chaos of Syria."
The U.S., he said, is dead-set against providing them support, vaguely describing a multinational "vetting process" for those who do receive assistance.
"They are not part of the opposition that is being supported by our friends and ourselves," he said. "That is a moderate opposition. They condemn what has happened today."
The video surfaced as the Obama Administration labors to convince a wary Congress it should authorize a limited attack on Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people — many of them women and children.
Again and again, Kerry insisted that such a strike was intended only as a warning to Assad that he would be punished for any further use of chemical weapons and was not meant to tip the balance of the civil war to the rebels and drive Assad from office.
"We're not remotely talking about getting America involved directly between any of those forces," he said.
Assad's departure, and who takes over for him in a transitional government, must be negotiated, Kerry said. But the Syrian president won't come to the table as long as he believes "he is able to gas an massacre the people of Syria into defeat," he argued.
Kerry said that if Congress does not authorize a strike, it will be sending Assad a message that he can use chemical weapons against his own people with impunity and damage America's credibility.
"I guarantee you if we turn our backs today, the picture we all saw in the paper today and the media of those people shot, that will take place more because more extremists will be attracted to this, because they will be funded as the only alternative in order to take on Assad," he said.
Striking a personal note, Kerry said his decision-making on Syria was informed by his own history as a Vietnam veteran turned anti-war activist but also "by my years of supporting certain military actions when they're important to the security of our nation."
"I know the lessons of war," he said, addressing the public's hesitance about new conflict after years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don't believe this is taking America to war."