US President Barack Obama has met with security aides on a response to Syria’s alleged chemical attack, with the Pentagon saying it’s preparing for possible military action.
The Saturday meeting came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military had presented options to Obama and was moving forces into place ahead of any possible decision.
However, despite the reports of a massive chemical attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus, Obama has continued to voice caution, warning that a hasty response could have unforseen consequences, including embroiling the US in another prolonged Middle East conflict.
“The president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria,” a Whitehouse official said.
“Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.
“We have a range of options 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.”
Obama is under mounting pressure to act following reports of an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus that opposition groups say killed as many as 1300 people.
If confirmed, it would be the deadliest use of chemical agents since Saddam Hussein gassed Iranian troops and Kurdish rebel areas in northern Iraq in the 1980s.
The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons, and on Saturday state television said soldiers entering a rebel-held area had “suffocated” on poison gases deployed by “terrorists.”
Obama warned a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces was a “red line” that could bring about a more strident Western intervention in the two-year-old civil war.
However, he has also voiced caution about the kind of intervention that could draw the United States into a quagmire.
US commanders have nevertheless prepared a range of options for Obama if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel told reporters during a visit to Southeast Asia.
The New York Times cited a senior US administration official as saying Washington was looking at NATO’s air war over Kosovo in 1999 as a blueprint for strikes on Syria without a UN mandate.