WASHINGTON – The US made preparations to attack Syria over the weekend should
President Barack Obama choose to do so.
On Saturday, US military and
national security advisers huddled with Obama at the White House to consider
options for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian
government last week.
After completing a bus tour through New York and
Pennsylvania on Friday, the president returned to a White House that was
concentrating on the latest foreign policy crisis.
Vehicles pulled up in
front of the White House’s West Wing on Saturday morning, bringing officials to
Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck
Hagel, who is in Asia, both participated from outside he capital.
American military updated a list of possible targets to include mobile units of
embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army, after extensive and credible
evidence surfaced on Wednesday that his forces used chemical weapons against
civilians in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds.
already included command and control centers operated by Assad.
said the US Navy moved battleships stationed in the Mediterranean closer to
Israel’s coast to close their ranges to Syria after Obama requested “military
options” in response to Wednesday’s chemical attack.
Existing naval power
in the region under the USS Harry S.
Truman carrier strike group is
extensive. Representing more than 80 armed craft, they give the president the
option to fire Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets without entering the
country’s air space.
The US Navy will expand its presence in the
Mediterranean with a fourth cruisemissile armed warship, a defense official said
The USS Mahan had finished its deployment and was due to head
back to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia, but the commander of the US Sixth Fleet has decided to keep the ship in the region,
the defense official said.
The Pentagon later played down the
deployments, insisting the US is not on the brink of a strike. But the moves
came after a four-hour Oval Office meeting on Friday with the president and his
national security team that focused on possible targets and
The meeting ended with no decision made on whether or not
to strike. The US has only made a preliminary assessment that the Ghouta attack
involved chemical agents and was perpetrated by the Assad regime, but has made
that assessment based on strong circumstantial evidence, officials
If sarin gas was used, evidence must be collected and analyzed
within no more than 10 days. Its presence could be tested for from urine, blood,
soil or even clothing samples. The Syrian government has large stockpiles of
sarin, and video footage of the attack showed victims suffering from symptoms of
the deadly gas.
International law bans the use of chemical weapons on any
battlefield under any circumstances.
And the “responsibility to protect”
– a norm agreed upon by global powers at the United Nations 2005 World Summit –
compels the international community to respond if a country fails to protect its
citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against
Obama has faced mounting pressure to act in the days after
Ghouta, with international precedent on the use of weapons of mass destruction
at stake. The president has said in the past that the US would not tolerate the
use of chemical weapons on a mass scale, and has referred to their use in Syria
as a “redline.”
France has called for “force” if the attack is confirmed
to have involved chemical weapons, but Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, has
balked at the prospect, charging Syrian rebel forces of conspiring to frame
Assad just as United Nations inspectors arrived in Damascus to investigate a
separate incident involving chemical weapons.
Russia’s stance complicates
any path the US would prefer to take through the UN in addressing the Syrian
“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,” Obama told CNN’s
Chris Cuomo on Friday morning.
Doctors Without Borders said its Damascus
facilities treated 3,600 victims with symptoms of neurotoxic exposure, of whom
nearly 400 died; the State Department said it had seen the death toll from
Ghouta range between 1,200 and 1,800 people.
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Reuters contributed to this