Hagel Hints At Possible Syrian Strike


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel strongly hinted Friday that naval forces were moving into position for a possible cruise missile strike against Syria.  And President Obama said a decision on military action was imminent following reports President Bashar al-Assad has again used chemical weapons.

"The Defense Department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all 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 told reporters traveling with him on his trip to Malaysia.

Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide options on Syria after a reported gas attack has mounted pressure on the White House to respond to the escalated violence in the civil war, Hagel said.

A defense official told the defense reporters on the plan that the Navy would expand the number of cruise-missile armed warships in the Mediterranean Sea to four.

The USS Mahan, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer armed with cruise missiles, was due to return to its home base of Norfolk, Va., but the Sixth Fleet Commander has since ordered the warship to remain in the Mediterranean, a defense official told the reporters according to a Reuters report.

In a CNN interview aired Friday, President Obama repeatedly answered "yes" without elaborating when asked if the time frame for a U.S. decision on military action had been dramatically shortened by reports that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons on opposition neighborhoods in the suburbs of Damascus.

The use of chemical weapons "starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region," Obama said.

Obama's remarks heightened speculation among Mideast analysts and in regional media that a U.S. decision on cruise missile strikes or moves to supply the rebels with heavy weaponry was imminent.

Syria's alleged large-scale use of chemical weapons has focused attention on the role of a small but growing base called Central Command Forward-Jordan that could serve as an operations hub should the U.S. decide to take action in the civil war.

About 1,000 U.S. troops are now in Jordan, building on a detachment of several hundred that were left behind at the request of Jordan's King Abdullah II after the Eager Lion training exercises in June.

To comply with the War Powers Act, Obama sent a letter to Congress in the June stating that the U.S. presence in Jordan would include "Patriot missile systems, fighter aircraft (F-16s), and related support, command, control and communications personnel and systems."

"The detachment will remain in Jordan, in full coordination with the government of Jordan, until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed," Obama's letter said.

Earlier this month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a brief tour of the Jordan base to reporters traveling with him to Israel and Jordan to discuss the crisis in Syria and other regional issues. Dempsey told the troops that the U.S. presence in Jordan would likely be needed for years.

The U.S. would stay until the Jordanians "felt themselves fully capable of dealing not only with their humanitarian crisis but also the potential that they would suddenly have to defend Jordan," Dempsey said. "And they would have to reach that point against not only conventional but, likely, unconventional and terrorist threats."

U.S. troops in Jordan have been assisting with the refugee crisis, building a sanitation system in the camps for the more than 500,000 Syrian refugees who have fled into Jordan.

Dempsey stressed that the U.S. troops were there primarily to aid in the defense of Jordan and to ease the refugee crisis, but regional media said the base was at the forefront of U.S. planning in the event of action against Syria.

Al Jazeera reported in June that the base was seen as a launch pad "for possible military action in Syria, including scenarios to secure the regime's chemical weapons stockpiles."

Troops from all the military services were in Jordan, including a headquarters staff from 1st Armored Division that included military planners, communications experts and logisticians, the American Forces Press Service reported.

Mideast analysts said Obama's declaration that Syria's use of chemical weapons was a "red line" for U.S. policy made military action more likely.

"A president of the U.S. cannot say something crosses a red line and then go on conducting business as usual," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Two initiatives come to mind," Haass said in an op-ed for the Financial Times. "The first would be to launch cruise missile strikes against select targets: anything associated with chemical weapons, command and control sites, and airfields used by government forces."

"The second would be to make good on the promise to supply those opposition forces deemed politically acceptable with significant numbers of anti-air and anti-armor capabilities," Haass wrote.

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