WASHINGTON — President Obama huddled with his top national security advisors at the White House for a Saturday meeting as the U.S. military prepared for a possible retaliatory strike against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
A White House official who disclosed the meeting indicated that the president made no decisions, but the high-level talks came as the Pentagon acknowledged it was moving U.S. forces into position in the region. The U.S. Navy has decided to increase the number of warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea from three to four, all of them armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to news reports.
“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on his plane Friday as he traveled to Asia. “And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options, whatever options the president might choose.”
Though Obama is still moving deliberately, advisors said there is a new sense of urgency within the White House after the deaths of hundreds of civilians, allegedly from poison gas, near Damascus on Wednesday.
The “winds have shifted,” as one official put it.
Obama also called British Prime Minister David Cameron to talk over the developments in Syria. The two are “united” in their opposition to the use of chemical weapons, the White House said in a statement issued after the call.
The moves came after Obama appeared to downplay the possibility of a U.S. military intervention in an interview that aired Friday morning on CNN. “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,” Obama said.
Antigovernment activists say hundreds of civilians were killed Wednesday when rockets with poison gas struck in the early morning. Obama has called for a U.N. investigation.
The president made clear Saturday that he wants intelligence officials to continue working to collect evidence that chemical weapons were used and how they were deployed, an administration official said. Hagel said the administration had not reached a conclusion on who was responsible for the attack in Damascus. “We’re still assessing that,” he said.
The United Nations’ top disarmament official, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus on Saturday in a bid to persuade the Syrian government to allow U.N. access to the sites of Wednesday’s alleged attacks. The U.N. is pushing to expand the mandate of a scientific team already in Damascus.
The 20-member U.N. contingent was initially assigned to look into three alleged chemical attacks that occurred months ago in various parts of Syria. The world body now seeks to expand its brief to enable the experts to investigate the latest allegations.
Syria’s state media reported Saturday that government troops had discovered “chemical agents” in a rebel stronghold northeast of Damascus. State TV said the toxic substances were found in tunnels in the heavily contested Damascus suburb of Jobar, which has long been the site of combat between government and rebel forces. The station broadcast images of what appeared to be a storeroom with barrels and other items. Official accounts spoke of the agents being found in tunnels and a warehouse
An unspecified number of soldiers suffered from “suffocation” and some were hospitalized in critical condition, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. It was not immediately clear how the soldiers were said to have been exposed.
Several of the areas allegedly affected in Wednesday’s reported attacks are close to Jobar, along the northeast limits of the capital.
Obama called his White House meeting on Thursday before he went on a two-day campaign-style bus tour in New York and Pennsylvania to promote his domestic agenda to bolster the middle class. The White House official who confirmed the meeting and declined to be identified discussing internal deliberations did not name the participants or offer specifics on the topics under discussion.
“As we have previously stated, the president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria,” the official said in a statement. “Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.
“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,” the official said.
Officials have said the Pentagon is updating a possible target list for strikes if Obama decides to order a military response. Senior administration officials have said they are not considering sending U.S. troops to Syria or creating a no-fly zone by sending U.S. warplanes to eliminate Syrian air defenses and aircraft to protect civilians, as was done in Libya in 2011.
Possible options include cruise missile strikes or a more sustained air assault.
Hennessey and Parsons reported from Washington and McDonnell from Beirut.