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U.S. Weighs How to Hold Syria Accountable for Alleged Chemical Attack

August 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States insisted today it is undeniable that Syria’s rulers gassed their own people last week just outside Damascus. That was coupled with new warnings of repercussions yet to come.

A warning: Some of the images in this report may be disturbing.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Make no mistake. President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From Secretary of State John Kerry, a warning that the Syrian government must answer for using chemical weapons and he insisted there is no doubt that it happened.

JOHN KERRY: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. For five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kerry spoke hours after a U.N. vehicles rolled out of a Damascus hotel’s garage, braving sniper fire along the way to get to a West Nile suburb. The team finally made it to a makeshift hospital in a rebel-held area, where they met with doctors and took blood and tissue samples from survivors.

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Local officials said it all came too late, since those killed have already been buried. But in an interview with a Russian newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Assad denied using chemical weapons. He said: “This is nonsense. First, they level the accusations and only then they start collecting evidence.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon rejected Syrian denials speaking in Seoul, South Korea.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations: We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly, this was a major and terrible incident. We owe it to the families of the victims to act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, U.S. Navy destroyers and fighter jets were positioned in the Mediterranean region amid growing talk of U.S. military action. Over the weekend, President Obama met with his military and national security advisers to hash out a response.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel weighed in today as he visited Indonesia.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: If there is any action taken, it will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of legal justification.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Senator John McCain led congressional calls for a strong response during a trip to South Korea.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: If the United States stands by and doesn’t take very serious action, not just launching some cruise missiles, then, again, our credibility in the world is diminished even more, if there’s any left.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other lawmakers were more cautious in their tone.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed on CBS’ Face the Nation yesterday:

SEN. JACK REED, D-R.I.: I think we can’t let ourselves get into a situation where this becomes a springboard for general military operations in Syria to try to change the dynamic. That dynamic is going to be, long term, very difficult and ultimately established and settled by the Syrians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Overseas, Australia’s prime minister joined other leaders in pressing for action.

PRIME MINSTER KEVIN RUDD, Australia: We will do all within our power, all within our power to act with the international community to bring those responsible to justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Jerusalem, the French foreign minister said there’s been no decision on military intervention, but:

LAURENT FABIUS, French Foreign Minister (through interpreter): We must respond strongly to these events. All the leaders must reach the appropriate response, but it is unthinkable that once what happened is proven and those responsible identified, there will not be a strong response by the international community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From Moscow, one of Syria’s main allies, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the international community to tread carefully.

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law. If anybody thinks that bombing and destroying the Syrian military infrastructure and leaving the battlefield for the opponents of the regime to win would end everything, that is an illusion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Britain suggested that even without the U.N. Security Council’s approval, a military response is still possible.