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Concluding That Syria Used Chemical Arms, Kerry Warns of ‘Risk of Doing Nothing’

August 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The Obama administration today laid out its case in detail that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people last week.

Secretary of State John Kerry minced no words in a blunt accounting of the attack. And President Obama made clear the U.S. is still making plans for a punitive military strike.

Once again, be advised that some of the images may be disturbing.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children.

JEFFREY BROWN: The chilling numbers stood out from the U.S. intelligence assessment released this afternoon. And lest anyone doubt, the secretary of state insisted, its findings are as clear as they are compelling.

JOHN KERRY: Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re- reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Kerry said the evidence this time was drawn from — quote — “thousands of sources,” and he starkly recounted U.S. conclusions about what happened August 21 in a suburb of Damascus.

JOHN KERRY: We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas, and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.

JEFFREY BROWN: The report told of victims stricken by spasms, foaming at the mouth and finally death, all without any signs of any visible wounds caused by conventional weapons.

JOHN KERRY: Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.

JEFFREY BROWN: The secretary acknowledged that a U.N. team has been collecting samples from the alleged attack site, but he said their mission is not to pinpoint who was behind it.

JOHN KERRY: The U.N. can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you this afternoon or that we don’t already know. And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should.

JEFFREY BROWN: In short, said Kerry, the question now is what the world is willing to do about it. And, he warned, what the United States chooses to do or not do will have profound repercussions.

JOHN KERRY: A lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. Some cite the risk of doing things. But we need to ask, what is the risk of doing nothing?

JEFFREY BROWN: A short time later, President Obama addressed that same question as he met with leaders from the Baltic states at the White House. He said he’s made no decision yet, but:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president acknowledged divisions here and abroad over the wisdom of any attack. He said a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.

BARACK OBAMA: The world generally is war-weary. Certainly, the United States has gone through over a decade of war. But what I also believe is that part of our obligation as a leader in the world is making sure that when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms on their own people, including children, that they’re held to account.

JEFFREY BROWN: Any plans for a broader coalition suffered a blow yesterday when Britain’s House of Commons voted against joining a potential military action. The vote was praised today by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposes using force against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But French President Francois Hollande said Britain’s decision will not prevent his country from joining in a strike. He told the French newspaper Le Monde, “The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished.”

Meanwhile in Iran, a senior cleric said any military action by the U.S. is doomed to fail.

AYATOLLAH KAZEM SEDIGHI, Iranian cleric (through interpreter): If The Americans commit such a mistake of attacking Syria, they definitely won’t achieve victory, and victory will belong to the resistance and the proud nation of Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in Washington, members of Congress briefed last night by White House officials indicated they were also divided over whether to use military force. And The Washington Post reported some current and former military officers have serious doubts, in the wake of lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, a fifth U.S. destroyer, the USS Stout, moved into the Eastern Mediterranean, adding to the arsenal of cruise missiles ready to be fired at Syria if the order is given.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Syria today, the foreign minister dismissed Secretary Kerry’s accusations as baseless lies and — quote — “a desperate attempt to justify aggression.”

Meanwhile, the U.N. inspectors wrapped up their work, as the people of Damascus braced for a possible military assault.

We have a report from Bill Neely of Independent Television News in the Syrian capital.

BILL NEELY: Their final mission, U.N. weapons inspectors set off to try to prove chemical weapons were used in Syria, a mission governments around the world are watching. But they went today not to the site of attacks to talk to those who had been targeted, but to a Syrian army hospital to interview soldiers.

Syria’s government says the soldiers were victims of poison gases. As ever, the inspectors gave little away.

Why are you here?

MAN: Because of our investigation.

BILL NEELY: They brought in medical equipment to take samples and took statements from at least five soldiers. The Syrians refused to allow journalists to talk to the troops.

On the capital’s streets today, they are waiting for retaliation from the United States, though many said Britain’s decision not to strike Syria is welcome.

MAN: For sure. If they are saying they are against this attack to Syria, it’s good for us.

BILL NEELY: “Britain’s made the right decision,” he says, “and it will affect the Americans — well, the American people, not the government.”

“I’m not sure it will have any effect on the American decision,” he says. “But it’s good.”

The U.N. mission here is now over. The inspectors will have left Syria by the morning, taking their chemical samples for testing in Europe. As soon as they cross the border, though, they will report to the U.N. secretary-general. Their initial findings may be clearer tomorrow.

Today, all day, the smoke and noise of explosions in Damascus, Syria’s army shelling suburbs, ready, too, for retaliation.