In 2012, Obama said if Syria used chemical weapons, it would be crossing a “red line,” and would draw a military response from the US.
He came under intense pressure to act, but did not, after foreign-backed militants accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of using sarin gas in a Damascus suburb in August 2013.
Damascus strongly rejected the accusations, saying the attack was carried out by the militants themselves as a false-flag operation.
During a news conference on Thursday, Kerry made the explicit link between the British parliament’s vote against air strikes and Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line.”
“The president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, did decide to use force and he announced his decision publicly and said we’re going to act, we’re going to do what we need to do to respond to this blatant violation of international law and of warnings and of the red line he had chosen,” Kerry said, according to the Guardian.
“Now, we were marching towards that time when, lo and behold... Prime Minister David Cameron went to the parliament... and he sought a vote for approval for him to join in the action that we were going to engage in.
“And guess what, the parliament voted no, they shot him down.”
British MPs voted 285-272 at the time to withdraw support for the planned US strikes.
Kerry went on to say: “So as we were briefing Congress – and I was on one of those briefing calls with maybe a hundred members of Congress on the call – many of them were saying, ‘Well, you’ve got to come to us. You’ve got to go through the constitutional process, get permission from us to do something.’
“And the president had already decided to use force but then the question became, ‘Do I need to go to Congress to get that permission?’
“It was a big debate in the security group. I was part of that, I remember the debate. And we felt that we’d quickly get Congress’s approval because this was such a blatant violation.
“I got a call Friday night, we met Saturday morning and the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval and that was the way we’d do something like that.”
Kerry said that in the meantime, he held a press conference in London and was asked if there was anything Assad could do to avoid being bombed.
He replied that Assad could agree to get rid of his weapons, and within an hour and a half, Kerry received a phone call from his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, suggesting they cooperate on such a deal – something that Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously discussed.
“All of a sudden Lavrov and I were thrown together by our presidents,” Kerry said, “in an effort to try and achieve that and guess what, we did achieve it, before Congress voted.
“The president never said, ‘I won’t drop a bomb.’ What happened was people interpreted it. The perception was that he was trying to find a different road.”
Kerry acknowledged that the perception that Obama backed down had “hurt” US credibility.
“I don’t think it’s fair because I don’t think it actually reflected the decisions that [Obama] made and it doesn’t reflect the reality of what we were able to achieve.”
Kerry is also at odds with Britain over Israel. Last week, following a UN resolution that condemned the expansion of settlements, Kerry criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally.”
That statement prompted a rebuke from Kerry’s state department.