Syria crisis: US weighs military options

The UN's disarmament chief, Angela Kane, arrives in Damascus

The US has bolstered its navy presence in the eastern Mediterranean as President Barack Obama weighs up his options over the conflict in Syria.

US President Barack Obama is to meet his national security team on Saturday to discuss possible next steps in Syria, the White House has announced.

Syrian activists claim the government carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Wednesday.

State media on Saturday said chemical agents were found in rebel-held areas.

Syrian television said soldiers had "suffocated" as they tried to enter Jobar - one of the towns reportedly attacked on Wednesday.

Syria's opposition said hundreds of people died in a night-time government assault in the rebel-held Ghouta district of eastern Damascus on Wednesday.

Unverified footage shows civilians - many of them children - dead or suffering from what appeared to be horrific symptoms consistent with a chemical attack.

Earlier, Syria's main ally Russia said there was evidence rebels were behind the attack.

But France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Saturday that "all the information at our disposal converge to indicate that there was a chemical massacre near Damascus and that the [regime of Bashar al-Assad] is responsible".

Despite calls from many different countries, there is no sign yet that the Syrian authorities will allow a UN inspection team to visit to investigate the claims.

The UN's disarmament chief, Angela Kane, has arrived in Damascus to push for access to the site. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he is determined to "conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation" into the events.

'Illogical and fabricated'

The US defence secretary said President Obama had asked the Pentagon for options on Syria, amid rising pressure on the US to intervene.

"The defence department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," Chuck Hagel said.

"The notion that the US can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated" - Video from CNN

"That requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options - whatever options the president might choose."

Mr Hagel was speaking to reporters travelling with him to Malaysia.

Earlier, US defence officials said navy commanders had decided to keep the USS Mahan - a destroyer armed with cruise missiles - in the eastern Mediterranean Sea even though it had ended its deployment and was due to be replaced. It means the US has four warships instead of three temporarily in the region.

The officials stressed that the US Navy had received no orders to prepare for military action.

In an interview broadcast on CNN on Friday, Mr Obama said Wednesday's attack was a "big event of grave concern", but added that the US was still seeking confirmation that chemical weapons had been used.

Last year, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line" and force a tough US response.

The BBC has learnt that some in the White House are furious and regard Wednesday's attack as an outrage that breached international law and demands a response.

Barack Obama says the attack is "a big event of grave concern" that is "going to require America's attention" if proved true.

But it is worth reading the whole interview with the president to get a sense of his extreme caution.

It is uncertain what action the US might take - curiously the state department has said that previously the red lines have been crossed and the US has taken action, but that they can't say what.

You might think a private punishment is not much of a deterrent and anything that happens now will have to be a lot more public.

But Mr Obama does not sound like a man gung ho for military action. It sounds like the pleading of man being dragged, pushed and pulled by allies and world opinion to do something but who wants to be certain it doesn't end up in a new war.

But Mr Obama warned in his interview: "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."

Meanwhile, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said Moscow had urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to co-operate with UN inspectors, but also that questions remained about the willingness of the opposition to provide "secure, safe access of the [UN] mission to the location of the incident".

"More new evidence is starting to emerge that this criminal act was clearly provocative," the ministry added.

"On the internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action."

The ministry also described as "unacceptable" calls from various European capitals for the UN Security Council to authorise the use of force in Syria.

Damascus has described the allegations that it sanctioned the use of chemical weapons as "illogical and fabricated".

The UN says more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began more than two years ago.

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'Chemical attack': What we know
Map showing the areas where the alleged chemical attacks took place in Syria
  • 01:15: 21 August (10:15 GMT 20 Aug): Facebook pages of Syrian opposition report heavy fighting in rebel-held districts of Ghouta, the agricultural belt in eastern Damascus
  • 02:45: Opposition posts Facebook report of "chemical shelling" in Ein Tarma area of Ghouta
  • 02:47: Second opposition report says chemical weapons used in Zamalka area of Ghouta
  • Unverified video footage shows people being treated on pavements in the dark and in a makeshift hospital
  • Reports say chemical weapons were used in Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west, but this is not confirmed
  • Syrian government acknowledges military offensive in the Ghouta area but denies chemical weapons use
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