US moving forces closer to Syria
on 24/08/2013 09:19:20
Speaking to reporters aboard his military aircraft en route from Hawaii to Malaysia, Mr Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements.
He said Mr Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide military options in light of reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians.
Mr Hagel said the US will coordinate with the international community in deciding whether such an attack was carried out.
And he said it is important to make a decision swiftly because of the possibility that the Syrian government could be readying further chemical attacks.
Mr Obama played down the prospect of speedy US intervention in Syria, stressing the difficulty of ordering military action against the Assad government without a strong international coalition and a legal mandate from the United Nations.
However US defence officials said the US Navy moved a fourth warship into the region. Each can launch ballistic missiles.
"The Defence 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," Mr Hagel told reporters travelling with him to Asia.
US 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.
While his administration weighed up military responses to this week's claims of a large-scale chemical weapons attack near Damascus, Mr Obama spoke cautiously about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al Qaida.
The president made no mention of the "red line" of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Syrian President Bashar Assad a year ago and that US intelligence says has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.
"If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN 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?" Mr Obama said.
"Those are considerations that we have to take into account."
The reported attack on Wednesday, which killed at least 100 people in a Damascus suburb, would amount to the most heinous use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja two-and-half decades ago.
Mr Obama conceded in an interview with CNN 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 US and its allies. But nothing he said signalled a shift toward US action.
US defence officials said the additional warship was moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
There are no immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria, said the officials. But if the US 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.
For a year now, Mr 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 US intelligence assessment concluded in June that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war, but Washington has taken no military action against Assad's forces.
In his first comments on Syria since the alleged chemical attack, the president said the US is still trying to find out what happened.
He said Americans expect him to consider "what is in our long-term national interests" in deciding what to do.
Referring to America's long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added: "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."