WASHINGTON/DAMASCUS – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday strongly suggested the Pentagon was moving forces into place ahead of possible military action against Syria, even as President Barack Obama voiced caution.
As calls mount for action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad over his alleged use of chemical weapons, Obama has said Washington must be wary of costly and difficult foreign interventions.
U.S. commanders have nevertheless prepared a range of options for Obama if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel told reporters aboard his plane en route to Malaysia.
“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” Hagel said. “And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options — whatever the president might choose.”
But Hagel declined to provide any details on the positioning of U.S. ships, aircraft or troops.
The Obama administration reportedly is contemplating cruise missile strikes against Assad’s forces. Hagel’s comments came as a defense official said the U.S. Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles.
The U.S. Sixth Fleet, with responsibility in the Mediterranean, has decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region instead of letting it return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.
Three other destroyers are currently deployed in the area: the USS Gravely, the USS Barry and the USS Ramage. All four warships are equipped with several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The reinforcement would allow the Pentagon to act more rapidly if Obama were to order a military strike.
The Pentagon chief made clear that no decision had been taken on whether to employ military force as the more than 2-year-old conflict rages on.
Hagel said the U.S. is coordinating with the international community to determine “what exactly did happen” near Damascus earlier in the 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 remained cautious about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaida. He made no mention of the “red line” of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Assad a year ago. U.S. intelligence says it has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.
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, analysts say. But apparent disagreements within the administration over the risks of another American military intervention in the Middle East have stifled any action.
Syria has vigorously denied its forces were guilty of a chemical attack on the rebel-held area.
Hagel, who was headed on a weeklong tour of Southeast Asia, said he expected American intelligence agencies to “swiftly” assess whether Damascus was to blame. He said the U.S. government would work closely with its international partners.
“If the intelligence and facts bear out what appears to be what happened — use of chemical weapons — then that is not just a United States issues, it’s an international issue,” he said. “It violates every standard of international behavior.”
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon stepped up the pressure by announcing that Undersecretary-General Angela Kane was headed to Damascus for talks over a probe into the chemical claims, his spokesman said.
“The secretary-general urges the Syrian authorities to respond positively and promptly to his request without delay,” it said.
The main opposition Syrian National Coalition pledged to guarantee the safety of U.N. inspectors, but so far, the Syrian government has not said whether it will let the inspectors visit the sites.