WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military stands ready to strike Syria at once if President Barack Obama gives the order, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday as the United States prepared to formally declare that chemical weapons had been used in Syria's civil war.
U.S. officials said the growing intelligence pointed strongly toward Bashar Assad's government as the culprit in the chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs last week that activists say killed hundreds of people — a claim Assad called "preposterous."
The U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since the civil war began more than two years ago. Obama has not yet decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, officials said. The president said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line."
Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack "undeniable." He said international standards against chemical weapons "cannot be violated without consequences."
Any U.S. military action in Syria most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on military targets.
Hagel told BBC television Tuesday that the Defense Department has "moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take." The Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea within range of targets inside Syria. The U.S. also has warplanes in the region.
"We are ready to go," said Hagel, speaking during a visit to the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei.
Hagel said "to me it's clearer and clearer" that the Syrian government was responsible, but that the Obama administration was waiting for intelligence agencies to make the determination.
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament for an urgent discussion on a possible military response. Cameron said the crisis session will be held Thursday for a clear government motion and vote. The British government said its military was drawing up contingency plans for a possible military attack. Italy, meanwhile, insisted that any strike must be authorized by the U.N. Security Council.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. In an interview published Tuesday on the website of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, Assad accused the U.S. and other countries of "disdain and blatant disrespect of their own public opinion; there isn't a body in the world, let alone a superpower, that makes an accusation and then goes about collecting evidence to prove its point."
Syrian activists say the Aug. 21 chemical attack killed hundreds. The group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
Assad warned that if the U.S. attacks Syria, it will face "what it has been confronted with in every war since Vietnam: failure."
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces.
"We continue to believe that there's no military solution here that's good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that."
Meanwhile, a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week's attack. The U.S. said Syria's delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless, and officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use and planned to make it public in the coming days.
U.N. officials disagreed that it was too late. The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack and on Tuesday delayed a second inspection.
It's unlikely that the U.S. would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country.
Officials said there was "very little doubt" that the chemical attack originated with the Assad regime, noting that Syria's rebel forces do not appear to have access to the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts.
It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid.
Obama has ruled out putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.
Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Military experts and U.S. officials said Monday that the precision strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Julie Pace and Robert Burns contributed to this report.
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