WASHINGTON A U.N. team began inspecting the site of a possible chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Monday as the United States used its strongest language yet to condemn the Syrian government for purportedly using nerve gas to kill hundreds of people in an escalating and bloody civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry described Syria's reported use of chemical weapons as "undeniable," "inexcusable" and a "moral obscenity" that "should shock the conscience of the world."
But Kerry the most senior U.S. official to speak publicly about the issue in recent days stopped short of detailing the administration's response to a conflict that already has killed more than 100,000 people, saying only that talks with allies were continuing as President Barack Obama looks to make "an informed decision."
Kerry's brief remarks came after three U.S. allies Britain, France and Turkey indicated they would support military action against Syria by the United States even without a U.N. mandate. The British navy is reportedly moving into position to aid the U.S. Navy in any strike on Syria. The Telegraph of London reported that the British navy was drafting a list of cruise missile targets.
Russia which has prevented the U.N. Security Council from taking strong action against Syria immediately criticized the United States, saying any attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad would lead to more chaos in the region and be reminiscent of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq a decade ago.
"Obama is moving unstoppably toward war in Syria, just like Bush moved toward war in Iraq," Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian Parliament's international affairs committee, said in a written statement. "Like in Iraq, this war will not be legitimate, and Obama will become a clone of Bush."
In Syria, U.N. weapons inspectors dodged sniper fire Monday as they tried to visit a neighborhood in suburban Damascus after receiving permission by Assad's government to investigate rebel claims that a regime-led chemical attack Wednesday killed more than 1,000 people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the war-torn country, and Doctors Without Borders said at least 300 people had died in the attacks.
Assad has repeatedly denied responsibility for the attack, which he blames on terrorist groups attempting to draw the West into the war.
"The area is contiguous with Syrian army positions, so how is it possible that any country would use chemical weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in an area where its own forces are located?" Assad said to the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Despite both sides offering inspectors safe passage, U.N. officials said they were forced to retreat and replace a vehicle after unknown gunmen opened fire. The inspectors returned, however, and visited at least one of the scenes, gathering soil samples and interviewing rebels and residents.
Rebel spokesmen said the U.N. convoy was attacked by paramilitary regime loyalists intent on intimidating inspectors.
Obama has long been reluctant to intervene in Syria, considered to have the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, despite describing the use of such weapons as a "red line" that would draw American involvement.
The fallout from such action could include retaliation by Iran, Russia and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah Assad's three chief foreign patrons and U.S. entanglement in a new Middle East conflict after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, many foreign policy analysts argue that Obama has a moral imperative to step in now.
Asked about Americans being held in Syria even as the administration considers military action, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it is "obviously aware" of Americans held by the Assad regime but declined to comment on how the issue would play into its deliberations. A year ago this month, American journalist Austin Tice, who wrote for McClatchy, was detained while covering the civil war in Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated Monday that the United States would be unlikely to take unilateral military action in Syria.
"If there is any action taken, it will be concert with the international community and within the framework of a legal justification," Hagel said.
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Western nations could intervene even without U.N. backing.
"Otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes, and I don't think that's an acceptable situation," he said in a BBC interview. "We cannot, in the 21st century, allow the idea that chemical weapons can be used with impunity, that people can be killed in this way, and there are no consequences for it."
Secretary of State John Kerry calls Syria's reported use of chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus "inexcusable" and "a moral obscenity" on Monday, but stops short of detailing any plans by the White House to respond.