PARIS — Arab League nations agreed Sunday that Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons and that it crossed an internationally recognized red line, but none have publicly endorsed the U.S. proposal for punitive air strikes against the Assad regime.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saudi Arabia has backed airstrikes, but the Saudis have stopped short of saying that publicly.
Kerry told reporters in Paris that all members of the regional bloc had indicated that they would add their names to a G-20 statement — already signed by 12 countries — that calls for a strong international response to the Aug. 21 poison gas attack near Damascus, but not military action.
After a weekend of lobbying European and Arab partners, only France has publicly called for airstrikes. But while France previously urged immediate action, President Francois Hollande has now backed off on the timeline — urging that the U.S. first take the issue back to the U.N. Security Council, where it faces an almost certain veto from Russia.
Kerry said President Barack Obama hadn't decided whether the U.S. might follow France in delaying action until the Security Council gives its approval. Obama will address to the nation on Syria at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.
"The president, and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends," Kerry said.
Kerry defended the publication this weekend of what the U.S. says are videos shot at the scene of the Aug. 21 attack, which graphically show children writhing, vomiting and foaming at the mouth.
"The vast majority of members of Congress — House and Senate — are undecided, and that's why the videos are being shown and the briefings are taking place, to make sure everybody understands what is at stake," he said.
"Those videos make it clear that this is not something abstract," he added. "Those videos make it clear to people that these are real human beings, real children, parents being affected in ways that are unacceptable."
U.N. inspectors are likely to hand in their report later this week — roughly at the same time as the U.S. Congress votes on whether to allow limited strikes on Syria.
However, securing a U.N. mandate could take far longer in the face of opposition from Russia and China, who Kerry said had "hijacked" the Security Council over the issue.
Kerry's meetings with Syria's regional neighbors come amid concern at the possible fallout from U.S. military action.
That was underlined Sunday when it emerged that two British fighters were scrambled from an air base in Cyprus last week to investigate Syrian jets flying over the eastern Mediterranean.
A statement on Sunday said: "The Ministry of Defence can confirm that Typhoon Air Defence Aircraft operated from RAF Akrotiri on Monday 2nd September to investigate unidentified aircraft to the east of Cyprus; the aircraft were flying legally in international airspace and no intercept was required."
The developments came a day after Kerry made a public plea for support — in fluent French. He spoke for eight minutes beneath the gold-painted cherubs of one of the Quai d'Orsay's elegant salons as he emphasized historic ties between Paris and Washington.
"When he visited General de Gaulle in Paris more than 50 years ago, President Kennedy said, and I quote, 'The relationship between France and the United States is crucially important for the preservation of liberty in the whole world,'" Kerry said. "Today, faced with the brutal chemical weapons attacks in Syria, that relationship evoked by President Kennedy is more crucial than ever."
While Kerry's performance might be seen as flattering a French government that is one of the few to back Obama's call for air strikes to deter Syria from using chemical arms, it may help persuade a skeptical French public, Reuters reported. An IFOP poll published Saturday indicated that 68 percent of the French were against an intervention in Syria.
Meanwhile, Assad has emerged in the U.S. media, granting an interview to CBS's Charlie Rose, which will be aired Monday. While the network didn't release direct quotes from the exchange, Rose said Sunday on "Face the Nation" that Assad denied having anything to do with the chemical weapons attack that has the world on edge.
"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."
The Obama administration's official response came by way of Bernadette Meehan, deputy spokeswoman for the National Security Council, who said, "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."
Later, during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry was asked about Assad's denials.
"The evidence speaks for itself," he said.
Alastair Jamieson reported from London. NBC News' Hasani Gittens and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published September 8 2013, 10:06 AM