U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asserted Sunday that the United States now has evidence of sarin gas use in Syria and said "the case gets stronger by the day" for a military attack.
A day after President Barack Obama stepped back from his threat to launch an attack, Kerry said in a series of interviews on the Sunday news shows that the administration learned of the sarin use within the past 24 hours through samples of hair and blood provided to Washington by first responders in Damascus.
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Kerry also said he was confident that Congress will give Obama its backing for an attack against Syria, but he also said the president has authority to act on his own if Congress doesn't give its approval.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday Syria was capable of confronting any external aggression and that threats of a U.S. strike would not discourage the country from a fight against what it described as "terrorism."
State television quoted Assad as saying "Syria ... is capable of confronting any external aggression" during a meeting with Iranian officials.
"The American threats of launching an attack against Syria will not discourage Syria away from its principles ... or its fight against terrorism supported by some regional and Western countries, first and foremost the United States of America," Assad said in his first comments since Obama's speech.
Syria generally refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad as "terrorists."
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said on Sunday Obama's speech showed hesitation and confusion.
"It is clear there was a sense of hesitation and disappointment in what was said by President Barack Obama yesterday. And it is also clear there was a sense of confusion as well," he told reporters in Damascus.
Congressional approval not needed for strike
While Kerry stopped short of saying Obama was committed to such a course even if lawmakers refuse to authorize force, he did tell ABC's This Week that "we are not going to lose this vote."
Kerry said Obama has the right to take action against Syria, with or without Congress' approval. But he stopped short of saying Obama was committed to such a course even if lawmakers refuse to authorize force.
Congress is scheduled to return from a summer break on Sept. 9.
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Obama, who has talked repeatedly of U.S. reprisals against Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons, announced Saturday that he had decided to defer any immediate action in order to seek a congressional authorization.
"The case hasn't changed and the case doesn't change at all. The rationale for a military response is as powerful today" as it has been, Kerry said."This case is going to build stronger and stronger," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. But he also said he thinks "the people of America should be celebrating that the president is not acting unilaterally."
Kerry maintained there is no weakness in the U.S. case underscoring Obama's about-face, saying instead that "the president believes that we are all stronger as a nation when we act together."
The secretary said that Assad "has now joined the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein" in deploying chemical weapons against his population and that "the case remains the same" for a U.S. response. Kerry echoed Obama in saying the world cannot stand by and watch Assad use chemical weapons.
U.S. evidence independent of UN investigation
Asked on CNN's State of the Union if the U.S. obtained its new information from UN weapons inspectors who had visited Syria, Kerry responded, "No, it is independent... But it is confirmation of the signatures of sarin."
"In the last 24 hours," he said, "we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States, that have now been tested, from first responders in east Damascus, and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin."
Meanwhile, UN inspectors are conducting tests on biological and environmental samples taken from alleged gas attack victims in Syria, UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky said during a press conference on Sunday.
The inspectors left Syria on Saturday and arrived in The Hague, Netherlands. There is no specific timeline for when their analysis will be completed, Nesirky said.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the Security Council should stand "firm and united" on any action against use of chemical weapons, according to Nesirky.
Dr. Ake Sellström, head of the UN weapons inspection team, briefed the secretary-general on the investigation process over the phone on Sunday.
Sellström told him that samples are currently being classified and will be transferred to laboratories tomorrow, according to a UN statement. Two Syrian officials were also observing the process, Sellström said.
Obama changed his mind
Kerry was asked repeatedly what Obama would do in the event that Congress refuses to give its consent, Kerry said, "The president has taken his decision."
"I think this is a smart decision by the president.... He is not trying to create an imperial presidency," Kerry added. "I believe that in the end, Congress will do what is right," Kerry told Fox News Sunday.
Administration officials have said that Obama appeared set on ordering a strike until Friday evening. After a long walk around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the president told his aide he had changed his mind.
These officials said Saturday that Obama initially drew pushback in a two-hour session attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Klapper, CIA Director John Brennan, national security adviser Susan Rice and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. They declined to say which of the participants had argued against Obama's proposal.
With files from CBC News and Reuters