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Possibility of Strike Over Syria Chemical Weapons Sparks International Debate

August 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST

JEFFREY BROWN: The United States worked today to firm up the intelligence behind claims that Syria used chemical weapons and to win support for a possible military strike. Meanwhile, a United Nations team began wrapping up its own efforts to find out just what happened last week in a suburb of the Syrian capital.

Be advised, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.

Outside Damascus, U.N. inspectors made a third trip to the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack, collecting samples in gas masks and protective gear, while the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, said their mission is nearly over. He spoke in Vienna.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: They will continue investigation activities until tomorrow, Friday, and will come out of Syria by Saturday morning, and will report to me as soon as they come out of Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: The inspectors’ exit could set the stage for possible military action by the U.S. and other Western powers against the Syrian regime.

Today, in Washington, the Obama administration was still marshaling its evidence and still not ready to present it publicly. In his NewsHour interview last night, the president said it’s clear who’s behind chemical attacks in Syria.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even so, the Associated Press quoted multiple U.S. intelligence officials today as saying the evidence is not a — quote — “slam dunk” and doesn’t yet tie any use of poison gas to President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.

That brought this response from White House spokesman Josh Earnest, dismissing suggestions of a split over the intelligence.

JOSH EARNEST, White House Deputy Press Secretary: There is a preponderance of publicly available evidence to indicate that the Assad regime carried out chemical weapons attacks in Syria. That is what the president has said. The vice president has said that. The secretary of state has said that. We have also seen our partners all around the globe say that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president tasked Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to convey that same message to top lawmakers today.

President Obama himself spoke by phone with House Speaker John Boehner. In a letter, Boehner had urged him to explain the rationale for any attack on Syria. Separately, nearly 120 other House members — 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats — wrote to the president, demanding that he seek congressional authorization before any military strike.

Meanwhile, in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron faced a rising chorus of opposition in Parliament to attacking Syria. He sought to play down fears of a wider war.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON, Britain: To me the biggest danger of escalation is if the world community, not just Britain, but America and others, stand back and do nothing, because I think Assad will draw very clear conclusions from that.

JEFFREY BROWN: France endorsed that sentiment, and the defense minister signaled his nation’s military is poised to act.

JEAN-YVES LE DRIAN, French Defense Minister (through interpreter): The armed forces are in a position to respond to the requests and the decisions of the president once he reaches that point.

JEFFREY BROWN: The French and British leaders had already spoken by phone with President Obama. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the situation with the president. She also talked with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who’s warned against attacking Syria before the U.N. inspectors make their report.

And back in Damascus, President Assad sounded a new note of defiance, saying, Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression.