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Obama assesses options on Syria

| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama convened his top national security advisers on Saturday to discuss the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, a White House official said, amid indications that U.S. military assets are being positioned for a possible missile strike on President Bashar Assad's regime.

“We have a range of options available, 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 in Syria,” the official told The Washington Post.

“Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The official gave no indication of the timing of a decision. The meeting included a review of intelligence that has been gathered since Wednesday, when the chemical weapons barrage allegedly occurred in an eastern suburb of Damascus. Syrian rebels have accused forces loyal to Assad of initiating the attack. The government has denied using chemical weapons.

In a news release from its Brussels office, the international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in Damascus have reported seeing about 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxicity symptoms” in less than three hours on the morning of the attacks. Of those patients, it said, “355 reportedly died.”

Among the options at Obama's disposal are cruise missiles launched from Navy warships in the Mediterranean.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel indicated assets in the region are being bolstered and repositioned to bring them within range of Syria, The Associated Press reported.

“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.

A Defense official told The Post that the Navy has four destroyers in the Mediterranean in close proximity to Syria. The Navy traditionally has kept three in the area, but the commander of one of the ships, which was scheduled to depart, opted to stay put to keep more resources in the region while the White House assesses its options, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss fleet deployments.

Obama has emphasized that quick intervention in Syria is problematic because of the international considerations that should precede a military strike.

He discussed the situation by phone 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 surfaced of an alleged chemical attack.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government continued to accuse rebels of using the chemical weapons and warned the United States not to initiate any military action, saying such a move would set the Middle East ablaze.

Syria has alliances with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian militant groups. The country borders its longtime foe and U.S. ally Israel, making the fallout from military action unpredictable.

In the past year, violence in Syria has spilled into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters have joined the combat alongside Assad's forces.

Obama has remained cautious about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and includes Hezbollah and al-Qaida.

In an interview on CNN on Friday, the president said that “if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it — do we have the coalition to make it work? Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

For the past year, he has threatened to punish Assad's regime if it resorted to using its chemical weapons arsenal — which is among the world's most vast — saying that the use or even deployment of such weapons of mass destruction constituted a “red line” for him. An intelligence assessment concluded in June that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war, but Washington has taken no military action in response.

The Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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