U.S. forces move closer to Syria as options weighed

U.S. naval forces moved closer to Syria as U.S. intelligence officials sought Saturday to determine whether President Bashar Assad’s government unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack on its people.

Meeting on the issue Saturday with his national security team, President Barack Obama reviewed a range of responses for the U.S. and its international partners if officials conclude that Syria engaged in deadly chemical warfare, the White House said.

Obama also discussed the situation by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the White House said. It was Obama’s first known conversation with a foreign leader about Syria since reports last week that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by the alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus, the capital.

A statement from Cameron’s office at No. 10 Downing St. said the prime minister and Obama “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community.”

The Syrian government denies the claims. It also has warned the U.S. against taking military action, saying such a step would set the Middle East ablaze.

Officials have said Obama will decide how to respond once the facts are known.

The administration has expressed caution about intervening in what Obama has called a “sectarian, complex” conflict, but the use of chemical weapons would be the second transgression since Obama a year ago warned Damascus that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the United States. Critics say the administration risks losing credibility if it does not respond more aggressively.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss specific force movements while saying that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria. U.S. defense officials said 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.

Navy ships are capable of a variety of military actions, 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.

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Hagel said the U.S. is coordinating with the international community to determine “what exactly did happen” near Damascus. According to reports, hundreds were killed in a chemical attack in a suburb. 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 chemical weapons were used in Syria. “It appears to be what happened — use of chemical weapons,” he said.

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.