By Daniel De Luce, AFP
KUALA LUMPUR–U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday strongly suggested the Pentagon was moving forces into place ahead of possible military action against Syria, even as President Barack Obama voiced caution. Obama has said Washington must be wary of costly and difficult foreign interventions, as calls mount for action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over alleged chemical warfare. U.S. commanders have nevertheless 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 U.S. ships, aircraft or troops. Hagel’s comments came as a defense official said the U.S. Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth warship armed with cruise missiles. The U.S. 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 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. 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 U.S. “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.