US naval forces move toward Syria, Obama weighs options

The president is meeting with his national security team to explore increased US involvement in the conflict

Despite contingency plans, Obama remains skeptical of military intervention in the conflict.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. naval forces edged closer to Syria on Saturday as President Barack Obama weighed possible military options for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government.

Obama has previously emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war is problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.

Nonetheless, the president met with his national security team Saturday to consider possible next steps by the United States. It comes as the United Nation's disarmament chief Angela Kane arrived in Damascus to further press the Assad regime into allowing weapons inspectors access to the purported site of a chemical assault earlier this week.

“The President has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria,” a White House official told reporters .

“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.”

Following the shift of U.S. naval forces toward Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria without going into specifics. 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.

"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 hundreds of people. It would be the largest chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

On Saturday, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said hospitals it works with in Syria had reported thousands of patients displaying "neurotoxic symptoms" in line with mass exposure to nerve gas.

"Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress," Bart Janssens, the organization's director of operations said.

Around 3,600 patients have been treated in the three hospitals, he added. Of those 355 have reportedly died, according to MSF.

Despite the Naval fleet change and the convening of his national security team, Obama remains cautious about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.

'Big event of grave concern'

"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 said Friday. "Those are considerations that we have to take into account."

Because Russia would likely veto any military action authorized by the U.N. Security Council, any American shift towards the use of force would have to come through another mechanism such as NATO, something which has led commentators and some in the administration to make comparisons to President Clinton's bombing of Kosovo in the 1990s.

"Kosovo, of course, is a precedent of something that is perhaps similar," said an anonymous administration official as reported by the New York Times.

Whatever the case, Obama conceded in an interview on CNN's "New Day" program that the episode is a "big event of grave concern" that requires American attention. He said any large-scale chemical weapons usage would affect "core national interests" of the United States and its allies. But nothing he said signaled a shift toward U.S. action.

For a year now, Obama has threatened to punish Assad's regime if it resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal, among the world's vastest, saying use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a "red line" for him. A U.S. intelligence assessment concluded in June chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war, but Washington has taken no military action against Assad's forces, nor do limited weapons deliveries that the president authorized to rebel groups in June seem to have been delivered on the ground.

The president’s reticence on greater involvement in the conflict has been echoed elsewhere in the government.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top-ranking uniformed officer in the U.S. military, has twice urged caution on U.S. involvement in the conflict in two public letters within the last month.

In a July letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee laying out U.S. military options, Dempsey warned of “unintended consequences” of direct U.S. action.

“We could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control,” he said.

While in an Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Ny, Dempsey said that U.S. involvement is not about “choosing between two sides” but choosing between multiple sides. He added that the Syrian opposition would not currently support American interests were they to displace the Assad government.

UN inspectors in Damascus

As the U.S. considers its options, the U.N. disarmament chief, worked to press the Syrian government over the issue of access for U.N. experts.

Kane did not speak to reporters upon her arrival in the Syrian capital.

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to cooperate with the United Nations and allow U.N. experts already in Syria to look into the latest reports of chemical attacks. Each side has accused the other numerous times of using chemical weapons.

Kane's visit comes after U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon handed her the task and called for the Syrian regime and the rebels to cooperate with U.N. efforts to investigate into the alleged attacks.

Rebels have reported a death toll of up to 1,300 resulting from Wednesday's attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

But the Syrian government says the claims are "absolutely baseless."

In addition to unequivocally rejecting those claims, the Syrian government accused opposition forces Saturday of storing chemical weapons outside Damascus.

Syrian state television said Assad troops found chemical agents in rebel tunnels in a Damascus suburb on Saturday and some soldiers were "suffocating".

Al Jazeera and wire services

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