The United States and its European allies appear to be laying the groundwork for military action in Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On Monday, a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry stopped just short of saying President Barack Obama was ready to act militarily, yet his closing words suggested it was only a matter of when, not if, the move would be made.
- Read U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Syria statement
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Obama "has also been in close touch with the leaders of our key allies, and the president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons," Kerry said. "But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people."
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 fact that chemical weapons were used on a widespread basis, against innocent civilians, with tragic results is undeniable," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday. "And there is very little doubt in our minds that the Syrian regime is culpable."
Kerry said Monday there is "undeniable" evidence of a chemical weapons attack, with intelligence strongly pointing to Assad's government as being responsible. Obama has not decided how to respond to the purported use of deadly gases in the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs, which activists say killed hundreds of people.
In Damascus, Syria accused Kerry on Tuesday of lying by claiming there is "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria likely carried out by the regime. A statement on the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency says Kerry's insistence on "jumping over" the work of UN experts in Syria shows that the U.S. has deliberate intentions to exploit events, and added Kerry has "fabricated" evidence.
The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack, blaming "terrorists" for the incident.
However, the regime prevented UN inspectors from visiting the site of the Aug. 21 attack until Monday. The team reached the site despite coming under fire from a sniper and was able to speak with survivors and physicians who treated the victims. They also used instruments to try to determine what chemical agent was used.
It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the United Nations 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 UN Security Council.
Kerry on Monday made several veiled warnings to Russia, which has propped up Assad's regime, blocked action against Syria at the UN, and disputed evidence of the government's chemical weapons use.
"Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale can be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass," Kerry said.
The U.S. State Department on Monday postponed a meeting scheduled for Wednesday in The Hague between senior diplomats from the United States and Russia due to "ongoing consultations" over the chemical weapons attack in Syria.
"We will work with our Russian counterparts to reschedule the meeting," the senior official said, adding that the chemical weapons attack demonstrated the need for a "comprehensive and durable political solution" to end the bloodshed.
Russia responded on Tuesday that it regretted the decision.
In London, the British government said Tuesday its military is drawing up contingency plans for a possible military attack on Syria.in reaction to the alleged chemical attack on civilians in Syria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said Tuesday the U.K. is considering a "proportionate" response that would deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future.
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters on Tuesday the gas attack constituted "a crime against humanity and a crime against humanity should not go unanswered. What needs to be done must be done. Today, it is clear the international community is faced with a test."
With files from The Associated Press, Reuters