President Barack Obama was given a detailed review of options Saturday for a potential U.S. response to last week’s reported chemical weapons attack in Syria, amid a buildup of U.S. military assets in the region.
No decisions were announced, and “the U.S. intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred,” according to a White House statement after a National Security Council meeting that included top defense, intelligence and diplomatic officials.
But ongoing assessments, it said, were “mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and records of the symptoms of those killed.” The administration has made clear its certainty that the Syrian government was responsible for Wednesday’s attack, which opposition activists have said killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a rebel stronghold east of Damascus. President Bashar Assad’s government has denied using chemical weapons. Russia, Assad’s main international backer, has said rebels were responsible for the attack.
An international aid group said Saturday that medical centers it supported near the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack had received more than 3,000 patients showing symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic nerve agents on the morning of the reported attack. Of those, 355 died, Doctors Without Borders said.
Among the options at Obama’s disposal are cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss fleet deployments, said that a destroyer that had been scheduled to leave the Mediterranean was retained there to keep more resources in the area, bringing the total to four.
Other options range from sending sophisticated weapons to Syrian rebels to using U.S. air power to establish a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas. Cruise missiles, if they were deployed, would most likely be fired at Syrian military installations as a warning to the Syrian government of U.S. seriousness regarding chemical weapons use, rather than an attempt to immediately alter the balance in the ongoing civil war.
In a Lebanese television interview Saturday, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi warned that any U.S. attack would result in a “ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East.”