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WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry says there is "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria, with intelligence strongly pointing to Bashar Assad's government, and "this international norm cannot be violated without consequences."
Kerry's tough language marked the clearest justification yet for U.S. military action in Syria, which, if President Barack Obama decides to approve, most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Monday, Kerry was harshly critical of chemical warfare.
"By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable," said Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to confirm the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.
Obama has not decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, officials said. The White House said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line." The U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since Syria's civil war began more than two years ago.
Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.
"We continue to believe that there's no military solution here that's good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that."
The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week's attack. The U.S. said Syria's delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless and officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use. U.N. officials disagreed that it was too late.
"What is before us today is real and it is compelling," Kerry said. "Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts."
The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts. Administration officials said the U.S. had additional intelligence confirming chemical weapons use and planned to make it public in the coming days.
Officials stopped short of unequivocally stating that Assad's government was behind the attack. But they said there was "very little doubt" that it originated with the regime, noting that Syria's rebel forces do not appear to have access to the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack.
It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a "red line" and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.
Last week's attack in the Damascus suburbs is a challenge to Obama's credibility. He took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.
Syrian activists say the Aug. 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
The U.S. Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship can launch ballistic missiles.
Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Military experts and U.S. officials said Monday that the precision strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.
The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.
On Capitol Hill, bipartisan support for a military response appeared to be building, with some key lawmakers calling for targeted strikes. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican had "preliminary communication" with White House officials about the situation in Syria and a potential American response.
It's unlikely that the U.S. would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama's travel schedule — he's due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the U.S. launches military action.
MOSCOW (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said his troops did not use chemical weapons in an attack on a rebel-held suburb in a Damascus last week where hundreds of people died.
The United States have said that there is little doubt that Assad's regime was responsible for the attack on Aug. 21 in the capital's eastern suburbs. Anti-government activists and Doctors Without Borders say that more than 300 people were killed in an artillery barrage by regime forces Wednesday that included the use of toxic gas.
Assad told Russia's Izvestia daily that the accusations that his troops were responsible were "politically motivated."
"This is nonsense," Assad was quoted as saying in an interview published Monday. "First they level the accusations, and only then they start collecting evidence."
Assad said that attacking such an area with chemical weapons would not make sense for the government as there was no clear front line between regime and rebel forces.
"How can the government use chemical weapons, or any other weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its troops are situated?" he said. "This is not logical. That's why these accusations are politically motivated, and a recent string of victories of the government forces is the reason for it."
Syria said Sunday that a U.N. team could investigate the site but a senior White House official dismissed the deal as "too late to be credible."
With France, Britain, Israel and some U.S. congressmen urging swift military action against Assad's regime if the use of chemical agents is confirmed, the U.N. team's conclusions could have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of the country's civil war.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said no decision had been made on a military intervention but that any response would be "proportionate."
"It will be negotiated in coming days," Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday. He said that the lack of a U.N. blessing was problematic, but that all options remain on the table.
"The only option that I can't imagine would be to do nothing," Fabius said.
Russia, who has been a staunch ally of Syria, said last week that the accusations against Assad could be a bid to get the Security Council to stand by the opposition, and to undermine efforts to resolve the conflict by convening a peace conference in Geneva.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Two top lawmakers are calling for an immediate U.S. military response to the Syria's suspected chemical weapons attack that killed at least a hundred civilians last week.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker is calling for the U.S. to respond in a "surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention." The Tennessee lawmaker says such a response should not involve U.S. troops on the ground, however.
Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York says the U.S. must respond "quickly," together with NATO allies, possibly using cruise missile strikes, as the U.S. and NATO did in Libya.
A senior administration official said Sunday there is "very little doubt" a chemical weapon was used, but added the president had not yet decided how to respond.
Corker and Engel appeared on "Fox News Sunday."
GENEVA (AP) — The number of registered child refugees fleeing Syria's violence has topped the 1 million mark in another grim milestone of the deepening conflict, two U.N. agencies said Friday.
Roughly half of all the nearly 2 million registered refugees from Syria are children, and some 740,000 of those are under the age of 11, according to the U.N. refugee and children's agencies.
"This one millionth child refugee is not just another number," said Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency. "This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend."
The children's ordeals are not over once they escape Syria, said Antonio Guterres, the head of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, known as UNHCR.
"Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope," he said.
His agency said it tries to ensure that babies born in exile are provided with birth certificates, preventing them from becoming stateless, and that all refugee families and children live in some form of safe shelter.
But the threats to refugee children are rising, the agencies say, including child labor, early marriage and the potential for sexual exploitation and trafficking. More than 3,500 children in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have crossed Syria's borders unaccompanied or separated from their families, according to the U.N. figures.
The agencies say some 7,000 children are among the more than 100,000 killed in the unrest in Syria, which began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war.
Most of the refugees fleeing Syria have arrived in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. However, U.N. officials say that increasingly Syrians are fleeing to North Africa and Europe.
The two U.N. agencies estimate that more than 2 million children also have been displaced within Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday the real number of Syrian refugees is "well over 2 million" if unregistered refugees are counted.
"The situation in Syria continues to worsen. The humanitarian suffering is alarming. Sectarian tensions have been ignited. Regional instability is spreading," Ban said in a speech in Seoul, South Korea.
"It is heartbreaking to see all these young people, children and women and refugees, who do not have any means, any hope for their country," he said. "They do not know when they will be able to return to their country."
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists say President Bashar Assad's forces are pressing on with a military offensive in the rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs where the opposition says a chemical weapons attack killed over 100 people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it had no word on casualties in Thursday's bombing of eastern Ghouta.
The government has denied as "absolutely baseless" allegations it used chemical weapons in artillery barrages there on Wednesday.
The U.S., Britain and France have demanded that a team of U.N. experts already in the country be granted immediate access to investigate the site.
Opposition figures and activists have reported widely varying death tolls, from 136 to as high as 1,300. But even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's civil war.
BEIRUT (AP) - Two Syrian pro-opposition groups are claiming that government forces carried out a "poisonous gas" attack near the capital Damascus, leaving dozens of people dead.
The two groups quote activists as saying that regime forces fired "rockets with poisonous gas heads" in the attack on Wednesday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the shelling was intense and hit the eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma.
It says "tens of people" were killed. The Local Coordination Committees said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling. Such different figures are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria.
There was no government comment on the claims and the reports could not be independently confirmed.
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — President Barack Obama will appeal to Northern Ireland's youth to sustain their peace in his first opportunity to highlight the role the United States has played helping bring about reconciliation in the country.
Obama arrived at Belfast on Monday morning. After his Belfast speech he will attend a two-day summit of the Group of Eight industrial economies.
Later Monday he was to meet on the sidelines of the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Topics for the two leaders range from Syria to arms control. Russia has criticized Obama's decision to arm Syrian rebels and has dismissed U.S. claims that President Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against Syrians.
Russia is a member of the G-8. So are Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Germany.
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian State TV is reporting that President Bashar Assad's army is now in full control of the embattled border town of Qusair, where fighting raged with rebels for nearly three weeks.
The state TV said on Wednesday that regime troops "restored security and peace" after successfully dismantling the "terrorist networks" operating in the town over the last few days.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters embedded with Syrian troops, was reporting live from the town, showing images of damaged buildings. The reporter said there was no sign of fighting.
Government troops, backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, began a wide offensive on the strategic town, which lies near the Lebanese border, on May 19.
BAGHDAD (AP) — The Syrian government says it has agreed "in principle" to take part in an international conference in Geneva next month aimed at ending the country's civil war.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem says his government believes that the conference, proposed by Russia and the United States, is a "good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria."
Al-Moallem did not elaborate in the joint Sunday news conference with his Iraqi counterpart shortly after he arrived in Baghdad for an unannounced visit.
The Syrian crisis began in March 2011 with pro-democracy protests and morphed into a bloody civil war. More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted.
BEIRUT (AP) - A Syrian activist group says Israel's weekend airstrike on a sprawling military complex near the Syrian capital Damascus has killed at least 42 Syrian soldiers.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that the toll is based on information from sources in Syrian military hospitals.
The Syrian government has not released a death toll. Immediately after Sunday's predawn strike, Syrian state media said the attack caused casualties, but did not elaborate.
So far, Israel has carried out three airstrikes in Syria this year, according to Israeli and U.S. officials, though Israel's government has not formally confirmed involvement.
The officials say the attacks were meant to prevent advanced Iranian weapons from reaching Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, a Syria ally and Israel foe.