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Syria debate is about ‘world’s red line,’ Kerry says

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (right) listened as Secretary of State John Kerry spoke during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (right) listened as Secretary of State John Kerry spoke during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry says the debate about military strikes against Syria is not about President Barack Obama’s ‘‘red line’’ that weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated.

Instead, Kerry told Congress Tuesday that ‘‘this debate is about the world’s red line.’’ He says it is ‘‘a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.’’

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Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were dispatched to the Senate to help persuade lawmakers to support a resolution authorizing limited military strikes against Syria following a chemical weapons attack last month outside Damascus that left hundreds dead, including many children. The three are testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry once chaired as a senator.

Kerry said ‘‘This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter.’’

Kerry also stressed there would be no American boots on the ground in any strike on Syria. He said there was no problem in having language in legislation that, in his words, ‘‘has zero capacity for American troops on the ground.’’

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Some lawmakers have expressed reluctance about being drawn into a larger conflict. But Kerry stressed that what President Barack Obama is seeking would be military action limited in scope and duration that would send a message to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad that it can’t get away with using chemical weapons.

‘‘You’re probably going to win’’ Congress’ backing, Rand Paul of Kentucky, a conservative senator and likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner while administration officials agreed to explicitly rule out the use of US combat troops in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack.

The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has ‘‘enemies around the world that need to understand that we’re not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it’s necessary.’’

Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Assad’s action ‘‘poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region.’’

The administration says 1,429 died from the attack on Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Assad’s government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country before completing a closely watched report.

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