WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials sought Saturday to determine whether Syria’s government unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack on its people. At the same time, the Obama administration prepared for a possible military response by moving naval forces closer to Syria.
Meeting on the issue Saturday with his national security team, President Barack Obama received a detailed review of the range of options he has requested for the United States and its international partners to respond if the fact-finding process concludes that Syrian President Bashar Assad engaged in deadly chemical warfare, the White House said.
At the same time, Obama has emphasized that quick intervention in the years-old Syrian civil war was problematic because of the international considerations that should precede a military strike.
Obama 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 the reports last week that hundreds of Syrians had been killed by a chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus, the capital.
The White House said the two leaders expressed “grave concern” about the reported chemical weapons use, which both of their countries oppose.
A statement from Cameron’s office at No. 10 Downing St. said the prime minister and Obama are concerned by “increasing signs” that this was “a significant chemical weapons attack” by the Syrian government against its people. Obama and Cameron “reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community,” according to the statement.
Noting that the U.N. Security Council has called for investigators to be granted immediate access to the area, Cameron’s office said, “The fact that President Assad has failed to co-operate with the U.N. suggests that the regime has something to hide.”
The Syrian government denies the claims.
Officials have said Obama will decide how to respond once the facts are known.
“In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” the White House said after Obama’s meeting, which included Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others.
Hagel declined Friday 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.
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.