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WASHINGTON (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad is warning the U.S. of repercussions if it launches a military attack against him, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday suggested that strikes could be avoided if Assad turns over his chemical weapons stockpile.
Syria's foreign minister quickly agreed to the suggestion at the urging of ally Russia, even as a Kerry spokeswoman said it was only a "rhetorical argument" and the administration pressed forward its case that Assad used chemical weapons and the U.S. military should respond.
"The evidence is powerful and the question for all of us is what are we going to do? Turn our backs? Have a moment of silence?" Kerry asked during a news conference in London.
Kerry said if Assad wanted to defuse the crisis, "he could turn every single bit of his chemical weapons over to the international community" within a week. But he said that Assad "isn't about to do it."
But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem quickly agreed, at the urging of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," Lavrov said.
The Obama administration tried to quickly tamp down the notion Kerry was making an orchestrated effort with the Russians to avoid strikes.
"Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," said Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "If he respected the international norms that have been in place for 100 years he would not have used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 innocent men, women and children in the first place. His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment."
Assad granted an interview to American television journalist Charlie Rose to contradict the Obama administration's accusation that his government used sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 people. Obama planned to press the case in a round of six interviews for Monday evening television newscasts.
Assad accused the Obama administration of spreading "lies" and said they have not presented a "single shred of evidence" to the public. He warned an attack could bring retaliation in the volatile region.
"It's area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything," Assad said in an interview broadcast on "CBS This Morning." Pressed on what those repercussions might include, Assad responded, "I'm not fortune teller."
"If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms," Assad said.
The White House was unmoved by Assad's denial. "It doesn't surprise us that someone who would kill thousands of his own people, including hundreds of children with poison gas, would also lie about it," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Kerry said he would be confident going into any courtroom with the evidence gathered by the United States that Syria's government used chemical weapons against its people. "Words that are contradicted by fact," Kerry said during a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Obama has a challenge to convince Congress to back a strike authorization, although leaders of both parties are supporting the measure. A survey by The Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against the plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.
"It's an uphill slog," said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who supports strikes on Assad. "I think it's very clear he's lost support in the last week," Rogers added, speaking of the president.
Almost half of the 433 current members in the House and a third of the 100-member Senate remain undecided, the AP survey found. They will be the subject of intense lobbying from the administration — as well as outside groups that have formed coalitions that defy the traditional left-right divide.
One of the two female Iraq war veterans in Congress said Monday she opposes the strikes, underscoring the administration's struggle in trying to rally Democrats to back the use of force. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii bemoaned the carnage in Syria after the chemical weapons attack, but said she has concluded that a U.S. military strike would be a serious mistake.
"As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy, including the support of the American people, and an exit plan," Gabbard said in a statement. "The proposed military action against Syria fails to meet any of these criteria."
Public opinion surveys show intense American skepticism about military intervention in Syria, even among those who believe Syria's government used chemical weapons on its people.
A Monday evening briefing for lawmakers was being led by Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Marin Dempsey and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice. And Obama himself plans to a rare visit to Capitol Hill to lobby Senate Democrats personally on Tuesday, before addressing the nation from the White House Tuesday evening.
Obama plans interviews Monday evening with the network TV newscasts as well as CNN, Fox and PBS. Rice is scheduled for a Washington think tank speech timed to the public relations blitz aimed at assuring Americans the administration isn't contemplating another Iraq-Afghanistan style commitment.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is scheduled to speak Monday at a White House event on wildlife trafficking, planned to reiterate her support of Obama's efforts to pass the Syria resolution, according to a Clinton aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
The resolution before Congress would authorize the "limited and specified use" of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days. The measure bars American ground troops from combat. A final vote is expected at week's end and the House is expected to take up the issue the following week.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Deb Riechmann in London and Julie Pace, Donna Cassata and Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.