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Obama meets with advisors to consider Syria response

August 24, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • President Obama reportedly met with senior advisors on Saturday to discuss options for addressing the Syrian conflict. Above, Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at a White House news conference on May 16.
President Obama reportedly met with senior advisors on Saturday to discuss… (Michael Reynolds / European…)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama summoned his national security advisors to the White House for a Saturday meeting as the U.S. military prepared for a possible retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.

A White House official who disclosed the meeting indicated the president has made no decisions, but the high-level talks come as the Pentagon has acknowledged it is 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.

"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters on his plane Friday as he traveled to Asia. "And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options, whatever options the president might choose."

The White House decision to announce the meeting coupled with Hagel’s comments to reporters suggest the president wanted to signal he is seriously weighing a military response.

The moves come after Obama appeared to downplay the possibility of a U.S. military intervention in an interview that aired Friday morning on CNN.

"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it," Obama said. "Do we have the coalition to make it work? Those are considerations that we have to take into account."

Administration officials have acknowledged that the White House is considering a range of military responses to accusations of a new brutal attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces. Anti-government activists say hundreds of civilians were killed Wednesday when rockets with poisonous gas hit homes in the early morning hours. Obama has called for a U.N. investigation.

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.

Obama called the meeting after he returned to Washington from a two-day, campaign-style bus tour in New York and Pennsylvania to promote his domestic agenda to bolster the middle class.

The White House official who confirmed the meeting and declined to be identified discussing internal deliberations did not name the participants or offer specifics on the topics under discussion.

“As we have previously stated, the president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria,” the official said in a statement. “Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.

"We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we're making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria,” the official added.

Officials have said the Pentagon is updating a possible target list for strikes if Obama decides to order a military response. Senior administration officials have said they are not considering sending U.S. troops to Syria or creating a "no-fly zone" by sending U.S. warplanes to eliminate Syrian air defenses and aircraft to protect civilians, as was done in Libya in 2011.

Possible options include cruise missile strikes or a more sustained air assault.

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kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

Twitter: @khennessey

christi.parsons@latimes.com

Twitter: @cparsons

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