WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama huddled with his top national security advisers at the White House for a Saturday meeting as the U.S. military prepared for a possible retaliatory strike against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
A White House official who disclosed the meeting indicated that the president made no decisions, but the high-level talks came as the Pentagon acknowledged it was moving U.S. forces into position in the region. The U.S. Navy has decided to increase the number of warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea from three to four, all of them armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to news reports.
Although Obama is still moving deliberately, advisers said there is a new sense of urgency within the White House after the deaths of hundreds of civilians, allegedly from poison gas, near Damascus on Wednesday.
The “winds have shifted,” as one official put it.
Obama also called British Prime Minister David Cameron to talk over the developments in Syria. The two are “united” in their opposition to the use of chemical weapons, the White House said.
Antigovernment activists say hundreds of civilians were killed Wednesday when rockets with poison gas struck in the early morning hours. Obama has called for a U.N. investigation.
Doctors Without Borders said Saturday that three hospitals in Syria it supports are reporting that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals on the day of the attack last week in eastern Damascus. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.
The president made clear Saturday that he wants intelligence officials to continue working to collect evidence that chemical weapons were used and how they were deployed, an administration official said. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration had not reached a conclusion on who was responsible for the attack in Damascus. “We’re still assessing that,” he said.
The United Nations’ top disarmament official, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus on Saturday in a bid to convince the Syrian government to allow U.N. access to the sites of Wednesday’s alleged attacks. The U.N. is pushing to expand the mandate of a scientific team already in Damascus.
The Syrian regime, which has denied the use of chemical weapons and sought to put the blame on the opposition, reportedly will allow U.N. inspectors to visit the site of last week’s attack.