Despite President Obama cautioning against intervention in Syria, the Pentagon is making “initial preparations” for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces, according to a new report.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is expected to present options for such a strike at a White House meeting on Saturday, CBS News reported on Friday.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel suggested Friday naval forces are moving in position closer to Syria in case Obama chooses action.
“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 said, adding a decision must be made quickly given “there may be another (chemical) attack.”
Meanwhile, a defense official, cited by Reuters, said on Friday the US Navy was expanding its Mediterranean presence with a fourth cruise-missile ship, the USS Mahan. Though the source stressed to Reuters the Navy did not have orders to prepare for military operations against Syria.
The ship was due to head back to the United States, but the commander of the US Sixth Fleet decided to maintain the ship in the region.
All four ships are capable of launching long-range, subsonic cruise missiles to reach land targets.
President Barack Obama is under renewed pressure to take action following the emergence of footage of what appears to be the aftermath of a toxic agent attack in a Damascus suburb on Wednesday. The forces of President Bashar Assad were assaulting a rebel stronghold in the district at the time, but deny responsibility. Moscow, which has maintained close ties with the regime, called the incident a rebel “provocation” possibly designed to derail upcoming Geneva peace talks.
Though the Pentagon will present plans for potential action on Saturday, as CBS reported, President Obama has final say on any further developments.
Questioned on the continuing upheaval in Syria and Egypt during a CNN interview Friday, Obama said the United States should be wary of “being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
Obama went on to express reservations for becoming involved in the 30-month Syrian conflict due to a lack of international consensus.
“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, [and] do we have the coalition to make it work?” said Obama.
Despite his cautious tone, Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice said via Twitter, “What is Bashar al Assad hiding? The world is demanding an independent investigation of Wednesday’s apparent CW attack. Immediately.”
Adding to the rhetoric in Washington, Sen. John McCain said that if the administration was to “let this go on,” it was “writing a blank check to other brutal dictators around the world if they want to use chemical weapons.”
The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee also spoke out in support of a strike in Syria, writing to Obama of the need to respond to the latest alleged outrage.
“If we, in concert with our allies, do not respond to Assad’s murderous uses of weapons of mass destruction, malevolent countries and bad actors around the world will see a green light where one was never intended,” Rep. Eliot Engel wrote on Friday.
Engel has been a proponent of a more aggressive approach to Assad’s government.
“And, we can do this with no boots on the ground, from stand-off distances,” he added in the letter. “I know that your Administration is wrestling with these very complex issues, but I believe that we, as Americans, have a moral obligation to step in without delay and stop the slaughter.”
Obama insisted to CNN that while the United States remains “the one indispensable nation” in international diplomacy, he suggested that perhaps this was one conflict where the world should not look to Washington for a definitive answer.
“The notion that the US can somehow solve what is a sectarian complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated,” said the president.
The White House later released a statement confirming Obama’s words, and emphasizing that the US has no plans to put “boots on the ground.”