The Obama administration is rapidly making the initial preparations for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces, CBS News reported Saturday.
The Pentagon's "initial preparations" will only give President Obama the immediate option of an attack. Indications Friday, based on an interview the president gave to CNN, is that he hasn't reached that point yet.
Despite the mounting indications that some sort of attack involving chemicals occurred in Syria last week, the "who" and the "what" are still far from clear. There has been no conclusive evidence -- such as toxicology reports using tissue samples from the victims -- that internationally banned chemicals like sarin were used.
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President Obama personally warned Syria a year ago this month that a "red line" in the conflict was the use of chemical weapons. Thus far, however, the US has not acted on Obama's threat.
President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, sent out a Tweet on Friday calling what happened "an apparent CW (chemical weapons) attack." And the commander of US forces in the Mediterranean has ordered Navy warships to move closer to Syria to be ready for a possible cruise missile strike.
Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is strongly suggesting that the Pentagon is moving forces into place ahead of possible military action against Syria.
Launching cruise missiles from the sea would not risk any American lives. It would be a punitive strike designed not to topple Syrian dictator Bashir Assad but to convince him he cannot get away with using chemical weapon
US commanders have prepared a range of "options" for Obama if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel told reporters before landing in Kuala Lumpur.
"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," Hagel said.
"And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options — whatever the president might choose."
But Hagel declined to provide any details on the deployment of US ships, aircraft or troops, as the Obama administration reportedly contemplated cruise missile strikes against Assad's forces.
Hagel's comments came as a defense official said the US Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles.
Meanwhile in Syria, Assad cast blame on rebel forces for the grisly chemical attack. UN Under Secretary General Angela Kane also arrived in Syria's capital Saturday for talks aimed at establishing the terms of an inquiry into alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Syrian state television said troops found chemical agents in rebel tunnels in a Damascus suburb on Saturday and some soldiers were "suffocating", intensifying a dispute over blame for a reported nerve gas attack that killed hundreds this week, Reuters news service reported.
In a clear attempt to strengthen the government's denials of responsibility for the suspected chemical assault, Syrian state television said soldiers came across chemical agents in rebel tunnels in the suburb of Jobar and some were overcome by fumes.
"Army heroes are entering the tunnels of the terrorists and saw chemical agents," it quoted a "news source" as saying. "In some cases, soldiers are suffocating while entering Jobar. Ambulances came to rescue the people suffocating in Jobar."
An army unit was preparing to storm the insurgent-held suburb, the television added.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius countered that all indications show that Syria's government was behind a "chemical massacre" near Damascus that the opposition claims killed hundreds.
"All the information at our disposal converges to indicate that there was a chemical massacre near Damascus and that the Bashar regime is responsible," Fabius said on a visit to Ramallah in the West Bank
"We ask that the UN team that is there can be deployed very quickly and make the necessary inspections," Fabius said. "The information which we have shows that this chemical massacre is of such gravity that it obviously cannot pass without a strong reaction," he added.
The US Sixth Fleet, with responsibility in the Mediterranean, has decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region instead of letting it return to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia.
Three other destroyers are currently deployed in the area — the USS Gravely, the USS Barry and the USS Ramage. All four warships are equipped with several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The reinforcement would allow the Pentagon to act more rapidly if Obama were to order a military strike.
"The president has asked the Defense Department for options. Like always, the Defense Department is prepared and has been prepared to provide all options for all contingencies to the president of the United States," Hagel said.
The Pentagon chief made clear that no decision had been taken on whether to employ military force as the more than two-year-old conflict rages on.
US newspapers have suggested disagreements within the administration over the risks of another American military intervention in the Middle East.
In an interview aired earlier Friday on CNN, Obama voiced caution.
He said Syrian opposition allegations that hundreds of people had been killed in a gas attack near Damascus this week were more serious than previous charges against Assad's regime.
"What we've seen indicates clearly this is a big event, of grave concern," Obama said.
One year after warning that the use of chemical arms in the vicious Syrian conflict would cross a US "red line", Obama said Americans expect him to protect their long-term national security interests -- but avoid foreign entanglements.
"Sometimes what we've seen is folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations," Obama said.
He warned that America could get "drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
The president also said that there were questions about whether the United States would violate international law if it attacked another country without a United Nations Security Council mandate.
And, after ending the Iraq war and as he brings troops home from Afghanistan, Obama noted the cost in US lives and financial resources of foreign military action.
Obama observed that the latest attack was conducted on a much wider scale than a previous one in Syria that the United States deemed to have been the result of chemical weapons.
On that occasion, Obama decided for the first time to send direct military aid to vetted Syrian rebels, though has declined to specify exactly what help Washington is providing.
Syria has vigorously denied its forces were guilty of a chemical attack on the rebel-held area.
Hagel, who began a week-long tour of Southeast Asia, said he expected American intelligence agencies to "swiftly" assess whether Damascus was to blame.
He warned that if the Assad regime had resorted to chemical weapons, "there may be another attack coming".
The US government would not rule out unilateral action, Hagel said, but he stressed the need to work with international "partners".
"If the intelligence and facts bear out what appears to be what happened — use of chemical weapons — then that is not just a United States issues, it's an international issue," he said.
"It violates every standard of international behavior."
Before the alleged chemical weapons assault, the US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, had expressed caution over any military action in Syria.
Dempsey had warned that imposing a no-fly zone would carry the risk of dragging the US into a protracted conflict or inadvertently aiding Islamist militants fighting Damascus.
Asked about Dempsey's statements, Hagel said he agreed with the four-star general's assessment, calling it "very accurate".
National Security Adviser Susan Rice took to Twitter to urge the Syrian government to permit UN inspectors to probe the latest chemical weapons allegations.
"What is Bashar al-Assad hiding? The world is demanding an independent investigation of Wednesday's apparent CW attack. Immediately," she wrote.
"Otherwise, we'll all conclude that Assad is guilty and lying — again."
Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this story.
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