By Andrea Shalal-Esa, Reuters
WASHINGTON – A sixth U.S. warship is now operating in the eastern Mediterranean, near five U.S. destroyers armed with cruise missiles that could soon be directed against Syria as part of a “limited, precise” strike, defense officials said late on Friday.
They stressed that the USS San Antonio, an amphibious ship with several hundred U.S. Marines on board, was in the region for a different reason and there were no plans to put Marines on the ground as part of any military action against Syria.
One of the officials said the San Antonio’s passage into the Mediterranean was long-planned, but officials thought it prudent to keep the ship in the eastern Mediterranean near the destroyers given the current situation.
“It’s been kept there as a precaution,” said one of the officials, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The San Antonio transited through the Suez Canal on Thursday from the Red Sea, and received new orders on Friday to remain in the eastern Mediterranean, near the destroyers, according to defense officials. It is one of three ships that are carrying 2,200 Marines who have been on a six-month deployment in the region around the Arabian peninsula.
The Obama administration released evidence on Friday that it said demonstrated the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against civilians. It made clear on Friday that it would punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the “brutal and flagrant” attack that it says killed more than 1,400 people in Damascus last week.
Officials cautioned the operation under discussion involved a limited, precise set of targets that would be of a short duration, unlike the broader campaign against Libya in March 2011.
The U.S. Navy generally keeps three destroyers in the Mediterranean, but kept two additional destroyers there at the end of their deployments as the situation evolved in Syria over the past week.
The five destroyers are each carrying an estimated three dozen or more Tomahawk missiles for a combined total of about 200 missiles, according to defense officials.