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.
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."
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.