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Syria Developments: Debate In Washington; Assad Speaks To Rose

The Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla in the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula is seen on Sept. 7. The town is now controlled by a rebel group with al-Qaida ties.
AFP/Getty Images
The Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla in the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula is seen on Sept. 7. The town is now controlled by a rebel group with al-Qaida ties.

We're following several stories regarding Syria Sunday, including new comments from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. There are also reports that an Islamist group with ties to al-Qaida has seized a town with a large Christian population. Elsewhere, officials in the U.S. and its allies are debating how to respond to the conflict that began in 2011, as President Obama's administration tries to shore up support for military action.

We'll update this post with news as it emerges today.

Update at 5 p.m. ET: Sampling Of Political Debate

As the Obama administration pushes for congressional support for its plan to punish Syria, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough appeared on all five major Sunday talk shows today.

Below, we've collected a sampling of opinions that aired Sunday, using transcripts from the Federal News Service.

McDonough, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press:

"Nobody doubts the intelligence. That means that everybody believes that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people to the tune that you just said of killing nearly 1,500 on August 21st.

"So the question for Congress this week is what are the consequences for his having done so? How Congress chooses to answer that question will be listened to very clearly in Damascus but not just in Damascus, also in Tehran and among the Lebanese Hezbollah."

... Later in the show, discussing the Obama administration's plan:

"Here is what this is not: No boots on the ground; not an extended air campaign; not a situation like Iraq and Afghanistan; not a situation even like Libya. This is a targeted, limited, consequential action to reinforce this prohibition against these weapons that unless we reinforce this prohibition will proliferate and threaten our friends and our allies."

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, speaking on Meet the Press:

"I haven't changed my mind, and I think the most important thing here is we all know, first of all, that what he did, Bashar Assad, was a heinous act. It's despicable. My heart is broken when I see that video, and you see women and children dying as a result of chemical weapons....

"But the big question for the Congress right now is what is the most effective way to move forward? And I think the American people don't want to be embroiled in a Middle Eastern civil war. This is an act of war that we're going to take. We haven't exhausted all of our political, economic, and diplomatic alternatives, and that's where I want to be focused. "

... Later in the show, discussing other options:

"I think what we're talking about is moving much too rapidly down the warpath and not trying to find a political solution through the international community. And Russia — we haven't even made them vote. You know, everybody says, well, Russia is going to veto it. They keep saying they haven't seen the intelligence. We ought to show them the intelligence. We ought to take the intelligence to the world and like has been done in the past, at the United Nations and the Security Council, a presentation as to exactly what has happened here and why Russia is complicit in all of this.

"And I think we have a real chance to move us forward in a very, very positive vein."

New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican on House Panels on Intelligence and Homeland Security, speaking on Meet the Press:

"I would vote yes in spite of the president's conduct."

... Later in the show, discussing regional concerns:

"I do believe, though, that there is a real axis between Syria and Iran that for Syria to be allowed to use chemical weapons, to continue to have their chemical weapons, at the same time, we're issuing a red line to Iran not to go ahead with nuclear weapons. That makes that Iran/Syria an axis predominant in the Middle East. It endangers Jordan, it endangers Israel, and that necessarily endangers our national security.

"I just wish president had laid this out better. I wish he'd quit backing away from his own red line, and I wish he was more of a commander-in-chief than the community organizer."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking on Fox News Sunday:

"Well, the interesting thing is when I see the horror of those attacks, my first impulse is that whoever would order that deserves death. I mean, someone who is a war criminal who would execute citizens and kill innocent people with any kind of weapon deserves death. But the question is the attack as I've seen the plan, as I've heard about the plan from the administration is not to target Assad, not to target regime change and to really be so surgical and so specific that it doesn't affect the outcome of the war.

... Later in the show, discussing possible outcomes:

"The worst case scenario is that the stockpiles of sarin gas begin to move about the country and maybe they go to Hezbollah and they go into Lebanon and become more of a threat to Israel. I think that is more likely to happen if we attack Assad than if we don't attack Assad.

"With regard to North Korea, I think the North Koreans know and should know absolutely if gas or conventional weapons were used on our troops ever that there would be an overwhelming response against them. They're completely separate situations."

Update at 11:30 a.m. ET: Assad Speaks To Charlie Rose

In an interview that will air on Monday, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad tells CBS News' Charlie Rose about the looming threat of a U.S. military strike and the claims that he used chemical weapons against his own citizens.

Speaking from Beirut, Rose described the interview on Face the Nation Sunday morning, saying that Assad repeated his denial of having ordered a chemical weapons attack. Assad also said the U.S. hasn't shown evidence of such an attack.

CBS News reports:

"'He does accept some of the responsibility' for the attack that killed almost 1,500 Syrian civilians — including hundreds of children, Rose said. 'I asked that very question: 'Do you feel any remorse?' He said, 'Of course I do,' but it did not come in a way that was sort of deeply felt inside. It was much more of a calm recitation of anybody who's a leader of a country would feel terrible about what's happened to its citizens."

Assad also told Rose that if the U.S. military attacks, there will be retaliation. He didn't give further details, though he warned the American people that their previous experiences in the Middle East have not been good.

Parts of Rose's interview with Assad will air Monday on CBS This Morning, and the full interview will air Monday night on The Charlie Rose Show on PBS.

Our original post continues:

A rebel group that is believed to be part of the al-Nusra Front took control of the town of Maaloula from the Syrian military late on Saturday. As CNN reports, the town is historically Christian — a group that it says makes up about 10 percent of Syria's population.

The al-Nusra Front is one of two groups with ties to al-Qaida that are fighting the Syrian government, as Radio Free Europe reports in a profile of the group.

The U.S. has not ruled out the idea of asking the U.N. Security Council for a resolution on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris on Sunday, according to Reuters.

On the same trip, Kerry also said that President Bashar al-Assad's "deplorable use of chemical weapons crosses an international, global red line," the BBC reports.

The U.S. accuses Assad of killing more than 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21. The Obama administration has released video footage that it says show victims of the attack. The graphic videos are also published on the website of the Senate Intelligence panel, which was shown the videos on Thursday.

During his visit to Paris this weekend, Kerry has often addressed officials in fluent French. That led Reuters to call a speech that highlighted ties between the U.S. and France "something of a love letter" — and to note France's staunch support for airstrikes on Syria.

Kerry's comments come days after U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said the Security Council is paralyzed by Russia's refusal to act against Syria, and may not be the best route for the U.S. to pursue its goals.

As we reported Saturday, member nations of the European Union joined to blame Syria's President Bashar al-Assad for the chemical weapons attack.

But EU officials stopped short of endorsing military strikes on Syria, preferring instead to await a U.N. analysis of the site of the alleged attack. U.N. inspectors have not yet publicized the findings of their analysis.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.