WASHINGTON -- U.S. 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 Assad government. The president emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.
The White House said the president would meet Saturday with his national security team to consider possible next steps by the United States. Officials say once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision about how to proceed.
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. U.S. 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.
U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Hagel left little doubt that he thinks the attack in Syria involved chemical weapons, although he stressed there is not yet a final answer. In discussing the matter, he said, "it appears to be what happened - use of chemical weapons."
The United Nations disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus on Saturday to press the Syrian government to allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged chemical attacks.
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