Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated that U.S. military forces, including naval vessels, are positioned in the Mediterranean and ready to act if President Barack Obama calls on the Pentagon to strike Syria.
“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” Hagel told reporters yesterday while en route to Kuala Lumpur, where he starts a week-long visit to the region. “That requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options, whatever option the president may choose.”
Military options include the repositioning of personnel and assets including ships, so as to be ready if the president chooses a military intervention, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Obama is under increased pressure to intervene in Syria amid allegations that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical arms in an Aug. 21 attack in a Damascus suburb that opposition groups say killed 1,300 people.
Obama is meeting with his national security team in Washington to discuss the reports, a White House official said in an e-mail statement to reporters. The president has ordered intelligence officials to gather evidence about what happened. Once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision on how to respond within a range of options that are available, according to the statement.
The U.S. and the U.K. have pressed Assad’s government to allow United Nations inspectors to enter the site of the alleged attack to gather evidence. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on the world to respond “with force” to any use of chemical weapons.
Iran’s foreign ministry warned against any international military action in Syria today, saying that intervention would heighten tensions in the Middle East.
“There are no international authorizations for a military intervention in Syria,” foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi was quoted as saying by the state-run Iranian Students’ News Agency. “We warn against any moves or announcements that would result in further tensions in the region.”
Angela Kane, the UN disarmament affairs envoy, arrived in Damascus today to press the Syrian government to allow experts to investigate the allegations, the Associated Press reported. Kane didn’t speak to reporters, the AP said.
Internet video and photos showed dead Syrians without visible wounds after the attack, and reports from local doctors were consistent with nerve gas or lethal exposure to pesticides.
Three hospitals in the Damascus area working with Doctors Without Borders received about 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to neurotoxins in less than three hours on the morning of Aug. 21, of whom 355 died, according to a statement posted on the charity’s website today.
While no representatives of Doctors Without Borders have not been able to visit the hospitals because of security risks, medical personnel have described symptoms treated including convulsions, impaired vision and breathing difficulties, said Bart Janssens, operations director for the charity.
While Doctors Without Borders couldn’t confirm the cause, the symptoms strongly suggested exposure on a large scale to neurotoxins, the charity said.
The international community must “translate words into actions,” with or without UN Security Council approval, Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said at a news conference in Istanbul today, broadcast by al-Jazeera.
U.S. intervention in Syria must be part of a broad international effort, Hagel said, echoing Obama’s comments in an interview broadcast on CNN earlier yesterday that the U.S. would need a UN mandate to act in Syria.
Hagel declined to specify how soon the U.S. would decide if military action is warranted against Assad’s regime.
“The international community is moving swiftly in getting facts on what did happen and getting the intelligence right and all the other factors that go into a decision will be made swiftly and should be made swiftly,” Hagel said.