The United States is considering launching a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, blamed by the U.S. and the Syrian opposition for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Here's a look at key Syria developments around the world Friday amid heightened tensions over potential military action:
The U.S. government said it has "high confidence" that Syria's government carried out a chemical weapons attack — killing 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Those numbers are significantly higher than what Syrian activists and aid workers have reported from Syria. The U.S. chemical weapons assessment said Assad's government used an unidentified nerve agent, and cites human and satellite intelligence that it said backs up publicly available videos and other evidence.
Syria's government said U.S. administration claims were "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians." U.N. experts completed a final day of on-site visits in their investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons and left Syria early Saturday. Shops and supermarkets in Damascus were filled with people stocking up on bread, canned food and candles ahead of expected strikes, but there were no apparent signs of panic or shortages. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the chemical weapons investigators visited a military hospital in Damascus in response to the Syrian government's allegations of three chemical weapons attack against Syrian soldiers earlier this month.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon privately briefed the five permanent members of the Security Council on the activities of the chemical weapons team. Nesirky said the team has concluded its collection of evidence related to the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, including visits to field hospitals, interviews with witnesses and doctors, and gathering biological samples and environmental samples. He said U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane will meet with Ban in New York on Saturday to give him a report on the investigation.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen from Copenhagen said the alliance has no plans for military action in Syria. He said approval for doing so would require the approval all 28 NATO members. But Rasmussen pointed the finger toward Syrian forces for the chemical weapons attack: "It demands cynicism beyond what is reasonable to believe that the opposition is behind a chemical attack in an area it already largely controls."
French President Francois Hollande said his country can go ahead with plans to strike Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons despite the British parliament's failure to endorse military action. He told the newspaper Le Monde that the "chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished."
Presidential foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov expressed puzzlement over why the U.N. team had finished its work "when there are many questions about a possible use of chemical weapons in other areas in Syria." Russia has insisted there is no evidence the government is behind the attack. Russia and China have said that they would block any U.N. resolution that authorizes use of force against Syria's government.
Treasury chief George Osborne warned that Britain should not turn its back on the world after the stunning parliamentary defeat of a government motion for military intervention in Syria. He told the BBC there will be "national soul-searching" about Britain's global role after the "no" vote.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany isn't considering joining military action against Syria and hasn't been asked by others to do so. Berlin has called for the international community to take a "clear position" following the alleged chemical attack, but has left open what exactly that might entail.
Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held rallies in Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Basra to denounce any Western strikes against Syria. In the capital, about 2,000 Sadrists demonstrated while chanting anti-American slogans after Friday prayers. About 3,000 Sadrists rallied in Basra, some carrying banners reading "No to America."
Foreign minister Othman Jerandi expressed opposition to any kind of foreign intervention in Syria, citing the "negative consequences" of any such operation. He called for "peaceful means and dialogue to find a solution to the crisis" to protect Syria's civilian population and preserve the country's territorial integrity.