KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The United States is preparing military options to strike Syria should President Obama make the order to do so, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said and suggested, but would not confirm, that naval vessels are being repositioned in the region in anticipation of a strike.
U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy has sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Speaking to reporters traveling with him on a week-long trip to Asia, Hagel said “the Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options, whatever options the president might choose.”
But when asked to confirm reports that U.S. Navy ships had been moved to the region, Hagel said, “I’m not going to get into the specifics of our forces, as far as assets and the positioning of our forces or assets.”
A senior defense official told reporters on Friday that Hagel’s comments “suggested” that reports of naval vessels being repositioned were true, but also would not confirm any specific troop movements.
“The United States is prepared to respond militarily if requested to do so by the president of the United States. Military options involve the repositioning of assets and personnel, and if the president requests military action, the Department of Defense stands ready,” the official said.
Obama huddled with his national security team for two hours at the White House on Saturday morning to discuss options on Syria. Hagel participated in the meeting by phone from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Obama also spoke by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron. “The president and prime minister will continue to consult closely regarding this incident, as well as possible responses by the international community to the use of chemical weapons. The United States and UK stand united in our opposition to the use of chemical weapons,” the White House said in a statement. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Saturday and urged him to allow inspectors access to invesitgate the claims of chemical weapons attacks, CNN reported.
The Obama administration is responding with extreme caution to reports of a massive chemical weapon attack in Syria, which if confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials or United Nations inspectors would signify a violation of international law and an undeniable leap across the “red line” Obama set last year for U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war.
In a CNN interview aired Friday, the president said he’s not sure how much influence the United States has to stop the bloodshed in Syria. “The notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated,” Obama said. He also stressed that any military action would need the support of the international community.
“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. 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 told CNN. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
The Obama administration has been careful not to suggest that a military strike on Syria is imminent, or even desired. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has long been wary of military action in Syria, but in an Aug. 19 letter he assured Congress that the Defense Department is not “weary, reticent or risk averse” to intervening in the civil war.
“We can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” Dempsey wrote. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict.”