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UN Asks Syria for Access, Nations Consider Force if Chemical Warfare Is Proved

August 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The drumbeat of Western leaders demanding a United Nations’ investigation of yesterday’s reported chemical weapon attack in Syria continued today.

Margaret Warner has the story.

And a warning: This report contains graphic material that some viewers may find disturbing.

MARGARET WARNER: France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said today the international community must consider military action in Syria if allegations of chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime prove true.

LAURENT FABIUS, French Foreign Minister (through interpreter): If it is confirmed, France’s position is that there must be a reaction, not sending troops on the ground, but a reaction, not only, of course, of international condemnation, but a reaction that could take the shape of the use of force.

MARGARET WARNER: The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session yesterday to discuss the incident that reportedly killed over a hundred Syrian citizens, including women and children, on Wednesday morning. It called for a thorough investigation of the attack, but stopped short of demanding Syria let U.N. inspectors on the ground visit the site.

But, today, a spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the U.N. chief has called on the Syrian government to grant the team access.

EDUARDO DEL BUEY, Deputy Spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General: The secretary-general now calls for the mission, presently in Damascus, to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident which occurred on the morning of the 21st of August, 2013. A formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the government of Syria in this regard. He expects to receive a positive response without delay.

MARGARET WARNER: The Syrian government has denied being behind the attack. And Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, has said the attack could be the work of the opposition — all this as government forces today pounded the Damascus area where the chemical attack reportedly occurred.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. hasn’t reached a conclusion yet on whether chemical weapons were used.

JEN PSAKI, State Department: The president has directed the intel community to — here in the United States to urgently gather additional information. This is our focus on this end. At this time, right now, we are unable to conclusively determine C.W. use. But we are focused every minute of every day, since these events happened yesterday, on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.

MARGARET WARNER: One year ago, President Obama said any such move by the Assad regime would cross a red line.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: In mid-June, the Obama administration gave its assessment that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on a small scale on multiple occasions within the past year.

White House official also said the U.S. would begin sending limited arms to the opposition, though it’s unclear if they have actually been delivered. As for other possible options, in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin last month, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said containing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile would require lethal force.

“At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone, as well as air and missile strikes,” he wrote. “Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month.”

In another letter this week, Dempsey cautioned the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, against backing the rebel forces militarily. “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” he wrote. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

The American people appear reluctant as well. In a July Quinnipiac University poll, 61 percent of Americans said it is not in the national interest to be involved in Syria.

If it’s proven that the Assad regime was behind yesterday’s attack against civilians, does the West have a duty to act?