MOSCOW - Syria's foreign minister accused Barack Obama of backing terrorists as the White House ramped-up its efforts to make the case for military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad's regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
"We are asking ourselves how Obama can ... support those who in their time blew up the World Trade Center in New York,'' Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said during a press conference with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.
Sunni Muslim extremists allied with al Qaeda are among the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.
Lavrov said there was enough evidence to show that the rebels fighting Assad have chemical weapons themselves, raising questions about who was behind the gas attack on August 21.
Russia, one of Assad's staunchest supporters, continued its call for a political solution to the crisis, which has claimed some 100,000 lives, displaced close to a third of Syria's population and destabilized the region.
The al-Moualem-Lavrov press conference contrasted with another impassioned statement in support of military action against Assad's government by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that Syria and its close ally Iran had admitted there was a chemical attack but blamed it on others.
"We see people dying, children, young kids not old enough to even speak, heaving for breath," he said during a press conference with British Foreign Minister William Hague in London on Monday.
"If we don't stand up to it we will face it more and they will think they can intimidate anybody," he said. "The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of not acting."
Assad has steadfastly rejected he was behind the gas attacks. In an exclusive interview with journalist Charlie Rose, Assad "denied that he had anything to do" with the chemical weapons attack last month, according to CBS News. The interview was set to be aired later on Monday.
Citing intelligence reports, the U.S. says the lethal nerve agent sarin was used near Damascus and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
Obama was scheduled to record a slew of interviews on Monday, the first day Congress will be in session since the August recess. Syria debate could begin in the full Senate this week, with voting as early as Wednesday. The House of Representatives may take up the issue as early as this week.
Foreshadowing the president's message to Americans in a rare prime-time address planned for Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told "Meet The Press" that "nobody is rebutting the intelligence; nobody doubts the intelligence" that is the basis for pinning the blame for the chemical weapons attack in Syria on Assad's regime.
"Our troops have not been subject to chemical weapons attacks since World War I," he said. "We have to make sure that for the sake of our guys -- our men and women on the front lines -- that we reinforce this prohibition against using chemical weapons."
Despite these assertion, Obama faces an uphill battle convincing Congress as well as the international community to back the attacks.
He will have to convince skeptical lawmakers to approve limited bombing strikes against Assad and rally a war-weary American public to back yet another military action in the Middle East.