President Barack Obama was to meet with his national security advisers early on Saturday to discuss reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons this week in an attack on a Damascus suburb, a White House official said in a statement.
“As we have previously stated, the President has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria. Once we ascertain the facts, the President will make an informed decision about how to respond,” the official said.
“We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria,” the White House official said.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced late Friday that US Navy warships in the Mediterranean would move closer to Israel’s coast to close their ranges to Syria should Obama choose to order a military strike.
Hagel told reporters that the president had asked for “military options” in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on a mass scale in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Wednesday. The attack reportedly killed over 1,000 civilians.
The Pentagon later played down the deployments, insisting the US is not on the brink of a strike.
Existing naval power in the region under the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group is extensive. Representing over 80 armed craft, they give the president the option to fire Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets without entering the country’s air space.
A US Defense Department official told CNN Friday that the Pentagon has updated its list of potential targets in Syria should Obama decide to intervene militarily in the country.
Assad’s army continues to move forces and equipment making flexible planning a necessity, the official told CNN.
The updated list includes mobile targets that would disrupt Assad’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks.
Initial Assessment: Assad Indeed Used Chemical Weapons
A preliminary assessment made by U.S. and allied intelligence agencies concludes that chemical weapons were indeed used by Syrian forces in an attack near Damascus this week.
It is believed the attack was carried out with high-level approval from the government of President Bashar Al-Assad.
American and European security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity to the Reuters news agency, cautioned that the assessment was preliminary and, at this stage, they were still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or even longer to gather.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. officials are weighing choices for a response to the events in Syria, ranging from increased international sanctions to the use of force, including possible air strikes on Assad’s forces, administration sources said.
A high-level meeting of members of Obama’s National Security Council, the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies was held at the White House late on Thursday but made no decisions on what to recommend, officials said, and further discussions were planned.
While the preliminary U.S. assessment was that Assad loyalists carried out Wednesday’s chemical attack with high level authorization, one U.S. source closely monitoring events in the region said it was also possible that a local commander decided on his own to use gas in advance of a ground assault.
Pressure has increased on President Barack Obama to act in response to the chemical attacks in Syria, particularly since he has in the past said that use of chemical weapons by Assad would be a “red line and a game-changer”.
Obama told CNN on Friday that the time is nearing for a potentially definitive U.S. response to the alleged Syrian government atrocities.
At the same time he said, “If the U.S. 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.”
France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a television interview Thursday that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, if proven, should lead to the use of force by other countries against Syria – but he ruled out a ground invasion.
“If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force,” Fabius told BFM-TV.
“There are possibilities for responding,” he said without elaborating.
He said, however, that there was “no question” of sending in ground troops, adding “it’s impossible.”