Kerry: Syria's Chemical Weapons Use A Test Of American Resolve

Secretary of State John Kerry says there is clear evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its citizens. He laid out that evidence at a briefing at the State Department, and pledged a "tailored and limited" US response to hold the Assad regime accountable.

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Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. knows the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, and he calls this moment a test of America's resolve.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.

SIEGEL: After Kerry's speech today, the president himself spoke of an obligation to maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons. Syria's foreign ministry responded, calling the U.S. accusations lies and a desperate attempt to justify potential aggression. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, this push for action against Syria comes as U.N. officials are asking for more time to analyze data they gathered at the scene of last week's attack.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry says the intelligence community built a strong case on Syria, mindful of the Iraq experience. He says there's high confidence now that the Syrian regime used a nerve agent last week in the suburbs of Damascus. Three days before the attack, Kerry says, the Syrian regime's chemical weapons personnel were in the area, and regime elements were told to prepare by putting on gas masks.

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.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry says at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in that attack; 426 of them were children.

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.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration also says it intercepted communications of a senior Syrian official, who the U.S. says confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime and was concerned that U.N. inspectors might obtain evidence. Kerry says rather than giving those inspectors immediate access, the Syrian government bombarded the area for several days.

In New York today, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the permanent Security Council members on that inspection. His spokesman, Martin Nesirky, says the team is now packing up and will leave Damascus Saturday, bringing out soil and blood samples.

MARTIN NESIRKY: The team was able to visit field hospitals, and there they were able to interview victims and doctors and collect biomedical samples. And, of course, they were also able to visit various affected areas where they interviewed witnesses and collected environmental samples.

KELEMEN: He says the investigators also visited a military hospital after the government accused rebels of using chemical weapons against its soldiers. All of the samples the U.N. team is taking out will be tested in labs in Europe. The U.N. spokesman won't say how long that will take.

NESIRKY: It will be done as fast as possible within the scientific constraints that there obviously are to ensure the integrity of the process.

KELEMEN: But Secretary Kerry says the investigators, as he put it, can't tell us anything we don't already know. He says President Obama will decide on his own timeline how to respond because U.S. credibility is at stake.

KERRY: If we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.

KELEMEN: Any action the U.S. might take will be limited and tailored, Kerry says, and he insists the U.S. does have support, even though a key ally, Britain, won't take part after the government lost a vote in parliament. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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