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Noting 'crucial details' implicating Syria, Kerry pushes for urgent U.N. action

By Jill Dougherty and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Fri September 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Letter: Al Qaeda-linked group, Free Syrian Army agree to cease-fire
  • Kerry: A U.N. report made the U.S. case implicating al-Assad "only ... more compelling"
  • Official says Russia would help destroy weapons as part of an international coalition
  • Rebels call in reinforcements against al Qaeda-linked fighters, official says

(CNN) -- America's top diplomat pressed hard Thursday for international action in Syria in the wake of last month's chemical weapons attack, saying "the U.N. Security Council must be prepared to act next week" given a report he says shows Syria's government is culpable.

Speaking ahead of next week's U.N. General Assembly, in which world leaders and diplomats convene in New York, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said "the complete removal of Syria's chemical weapons is possible here, through peaceful means." But urgency is needed, he added, saying, "Time is short. Let's not spend time debating what we already know."

"This fight about Syria's chemical weapons is not a game," Kerry told reporters. "It's real."

Washington has been leading the charge for action -- including possible military intervention -- in Syria since an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that U.S. officials estimate killed about 1,400 people.

Kerry and others have said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was behind the attack; al-Assad and fellow Syrian officials have adamantly denied that claim and blamed rebels. A report from U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who went to Syria had the potential to offer a fact-based assessment with the potential to bridge the divide.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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That report came out this week. While, per its directive, it did not cast blame on any one side, Kerry said that it offered "crucial details" that make the case implicating al-Assad "only ... more compelling."

"Anybody who reads the facts and puts the dots together -- which is easy to do and they made it easy to do -- understands what those facts mean," Kerry said.

As an example, Kerry said the U.N. report notes that only the Syrian government forces are capable of using the type of chemical weapon-laden munitions and rockets the way were used. Kerry said it's unrealistic to think anyone but they had access to such weapons as well as the means to deliver them.

"There's not a shred of evidence that the opposition does (have that capability)," he added.

But Syria, and its longtime ally Russia, continue to offer a starkly different viewpoint.

Moscow has described the U.N. report as "distorted," with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov telling Russia Today it was built on insufficient information.

In the same interview, Ryabkov said Syria has provided evidence -- which Russia is studying -- that implicates rebels carried out the attack.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday stressed that opposition fighters may have done so in order to provoke an international response. Material has been taken from the Syrian army, he added.

Yet, without mentioning any country or group in particular, Kerry said Thursday that such theories distracted from a critical need for the international community to act quickly and decisively in Syria.

"We really don't have time today," the secretary of state said, "to pretend that anyone can have their own set of facts."

Opinion: Syria problem is not going away

Minister: Russia could help move, destroy weapons

The rhetoric out of Moscow might seem sharply opposed to that out of Washington. But Russia was the one to offer a proposal that U.S. President Barack Obama and others have embraced -- to eliminate the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile -- and it signaled its intent Thursday to help with that plan.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his country is willing to transport and destroy Syrian chemical weapons, although only as part of an international coalition.

In fact, Russia and the United States agreed earlier this month on the framework for such a plan, and Syria has said its willing to give up its chemical weapons.

But reaching a final deal at the United Nations will be tough. U.S. and French officials want to include the threat of military action in the event Syria doesn't comply. But Russian officials don't want any wording that could trigger the use of force, a point Putin reiterated at the same Valdai forum -- an annual meeting in which experts, pundits and diplomatic personnel gather for discussions with senior Russian officials -- that Shoigu attended.

"The threat of using force is far from being the way to solve all international problems," Putin said Thursday, adding the U.S. Congress should be going through the U.N. Security Council rather than debating the use of force against Syria.

The Russian leader questioned merits of Western military intervention, saying it hasn't worked elsewhere in places like Libya.

"Good motives, good intentions, led to these military interventions in Libya," Putin said. "But did it bring about democracy? The country has been divided up into countries like tribes fighting each other."

And what if al-Assad doesn't comply with any deal, as rebel leaders believe he will? Putin brushed off a question Thursday as to what Russia would do if that proves true.

"We don't have any reason to believe they won't implement what they have said. If they don't, we will reconsider the question," he said.

Opinion: Is the U.S. back to Square One on Syria?

Syrian leader says he welcomes U.N. inspectors' return

Meanwhile, Syria's president says he'll welcome the return of U.N. investigators to follow up on more allegations of chemical weapons use in his country.

"We've been asking them to come back to Syria to continue their investigations," al-Assad told Fox News in an interview broadcast Wednesday.

Al-Assad said he hadn't had time yet to analyze the U.N. investigators' findings, but he stressed that they have more work to do.

"They haven't finished it yet," he said, adding that it's clear that rebels, not his government, were behind chemical weapons attacks.

Ake Sellstrom, the head of the inspection team that visited Syria after the August 21 attack, told CNN that another visit could take place as early as next week.

U.S. surveillance satellites indicate Syria's government has moved its chemical weapons in recent days, two Obama administration officials -- each with a different agency -- say.

Syria again moving chemical weapons, officials say

One of the officials said it "is unclear (if) they are moving them to consolidate the stockpile and then declare it, or are they moving it around to conceal it." Both officials asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the information.

As world leaders continued to debate what to do about such weapons, violence continued to rage inside the Middle Eastern nation much as it has, on a daily basis, for well over two years.

The U.N. estimates more than 100,000 people have died since March 2011, a period in which harsh government crackdowns against protesters devolved into an all-out civil war. Another 2 million fled their homeland, while more than 4.25 million have been displaced within Syria, also according to the United Nations.

The president of another of Syria's long-time allies, Iran, offered Thursday to broker efforts to bring peace to the war-torn nation. In a Washington Post op-ed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced his "government's readiness to facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition."

There was no immediate reaction to Rouhani's offer from any key players in the struggle. Yet given the military support that Iran has reportedly given al-Assad throughout this ordeal, it seems unlikely the rebels would consider any Iranian official a truly independent broker.

Amidst all this talk, the bloodshed continues. The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported at least 82 dead across the country Thursday, including 15 killed by shelling from Syrian warplanes in the Idlib province town of Sinjar.

But the violence didn't just pit opposition fighters against government forces.

For a second straight day, Free Syrian Army rebels clashed with fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria near the northern town of Azaz, not far from the Turkish border.

Abu Thabat, a Free Syrian Army official, said his group has received reinforcements from two other battalions in the fight in what's been rebel-controlled territory. They've managed to push the al Qaeda-linked fighters back some, though the battle continues.

"We are regrouping," Thabat said. "We will call for more reinforcements and will probably attack tonight."

A short time later, though, a scanned letter signed by an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria member, a captain in the Free Syria Army and two witnesses appeared to indicate that these hostilities were over -- at least for now.

According to the letter posted on the Facebook page for a rebel-held border crossing community, the parties have agreed to an immediate cease-fire, the prompt return of prisoners and seized property and the formation of a committee to look at resolving the two sides' dispute long-term.

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq, Jason Hanna, Joe Sterling, Richard Allen Greene, Tom Watkins and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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