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Syria's Assad Defiant as UN Team Prepares to Leave Early

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images(DAMASCUS, Syria) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defiantly vowed Thursday to "defend [Syria] in the face of any aggression," as the U.N. team of chemical weapons inspectors prepared to wrap up its mission -- opening up the possibility of a military strike in the next 48 hours.

"The threats of direct aggression against Syria will only increase our commitment to our deep-rooted principles and the independent will of our people," Syrian state TV quoted Assad as saying.

"Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression," he said.

After four days of field visits, the U.N. team will leave Syria on Saturday, one day ahead of schedule, which means a U.S.-led military strike on the Syrian regime could come as early as Saturday afternoon.

U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon said Thursday the inspectors "will continue their investigation activities until tomorrow, Friday, and will come out of Syria by Saturday morning and will report to me as soon as they come out of Syria."

Thursday morning, the U.N. team was seen heading to the eastern suburbs of Damascus to spend a third day at the sites of last week's massacre.

The U.N.'s special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the team on the ground had already concluded that a "chemical substance" was used to kill hundreds of people in Syria. In accordance with the mission's mandate, Brahimi did not place blame on either the regime or the opposition.

In Washington, the Obama administration may release its promised intelligence report in a bid to publicly justify military action against the Syrian regime.

Describing the report, administration officials said there was no "silver bullet" directly linking Assad to the chemical weapons attack, but U.S. officials believe there is sufficient evidence to pin the attack on the regime.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said there was no doubt the regime was responsible for the attack.

"Let's be clear here that based on multiple independent streams of information widely available that again I will say the only logical conclusion is that the Assad regime itself was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in this attack. Period," Harf told reporters on Wednesday.

Harf continued, "The commander-in-chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership… even if… he's not the one that pushes the button or said, 'Go,' on this."

As the Obama administration continues to lay the groundwork for military action without U.N. approval, the U.S. may be plunging in alone, recalling memories of the Iraq war 10 years ago. The State Department tersely rejected the comparison on Wednesday.

"I would in no way compare this at all, period, to Iraq," Harf said. "We are making decisions that are in our national security interest. We are consulting with our allies and partners, including the U.N. But we do not believe that the Syrian regime should be able to hide behind the U.N."

Britain and France had initially voiced support for a U.S.-led strike, but both countries have since taken a step back. Britain introduced a resolution to the U.N. Security Council Wednesday, but as expected, Russia, a staunch Assad regime ally, blocked the resolution from moving forward.

Acutely aware of the criticisms following the start of the Iraq war in 2003, UK Prime Minister David Cameron cancelled Thursday's scheduled parliament vote to authorize military action, vowing instead to wait for the U.N. weapons inspectors to report their findings.

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