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US forces move closer to Syria as options weighed

Fourth warship with ballistic missiles deployed to eastern Mediterranean; Obama, Cameron agree chemical weapons use would merit ‘serious response’

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US President Barack Obama (photo credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — US naval forces are moving closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers military options for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The president emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.

After Obama met with his national security team Saturday, the White House said US intelligence officials are still trying to determine whether Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack against his people earlier this week. Officials save said once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision about how to proceed.

According to the Sunday Times, British and US defense officials are “compiling a list of targets, among a range of options” for a possible one- or two-day operation with “stand-off weapons” — aircraft and cruise missiles. A source told the paper that the plans would involve no “boots on the ground.”

Top military officials, including general Dempsey, will come to Jordan next week to discuss recent developments in Syria, the Hashemite Kingdom’s semi-official news agency, Petra, reported Saturday. Army leaders from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Italy were also set to attend.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements while saying that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria. US defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.

US Navy ships are capable of a variety of military action, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.

“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose,” Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia.

Hagel said the US is coordinating with the international community to determine “what exactly did happen” near Damascus earlier this week. According to reports, a chemical attack in a suburb of the capital killed at least 100 people. It would be the most heinous use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

Obama discussed the situation in Syria by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the White House said. It was Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since the reports this week that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by the alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus, the capital.

The White House said the two leaders expressed “grave concern” about the reported chemical weapons use, which both of their countries oppose.

A statement from Cameron’s office at No. 10 Downing St. said the prime minister and Obama “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community.”

Assad’s regime has denied allegations that it was behind that attack, calling them “absolutely baseless” and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.

Obama remained cautious about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. He made no mention of the “red line” of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Assad a year ago and that US intelligence says has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.

“If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it — do we have the coalition to make it work?” Obama said Friday. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

Obama conceded in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” program that the episode is a “big event of grave concern” that requires American attention. He said any large-scale chemical weapons usage would affect “core national interests” of the United States and its allies. But nothing he said signaled a shift toward US action.

US defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss ship movements publicly. But if the U.S. wants to send a message to Assad, the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.

For a year now, Obama has threatened to punish Assad’s regime if it resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal, among the world’s vastest, saying use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a “red line” for him. A US intelligence assessment concluded in June chemical weapons have been used in Syria’s civil war, but Washington has taken no military action against Assad’s forces.

US officials have instead focused on trying to organize a peace conference between the government and opposition. Obama has authorized weapons deliveries to rebel groups, but none are believed to have been sent so far.

In his first comments on Syria since the alleged chemical attack, Obama said the US is still trying to find out what happened. Hagel said Friday that a determination on the chemical attack should be made swiftly because “there may be another attack coming,” although he added that “we don’t know” whether that will happen.

After rebels similarly reported chemical attacks in February, US confirmation took more than four months. In this instance, a UN chemical weapons team is already on the ground in Syria.

Obama also cited the need for the US to be part of a coalition in dealing with Syria. America’s ability by itself to solve the Arab country’s sectarian fighting is “overstated,” he said.

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