The destroyer Mahan is not heading home and will remain positioned close to Syria, a defense official said. (MC1 Lolita Lewis / Navy)
A Syrian couple mourns in front of bodies wrapped in shrouds ahead of funerals following what Syrian rebels claim to be a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces Wednesday in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. / Ammar al-Arbini / AFP
WASHINGTON, D.C. — US President Barack Obama met with his top national security advisors early Saturday to discuss the response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, a White House official said.
"The president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria. Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond," the official said.
"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."
Another U.S. defense official tells [Defense News sister publication] Navy Times that there are now four destroyers positioned in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: the Mahan, Barry, Gravely and Ramage. The Mahan was initially scheduled to head home, being replaced by the Ramage. But for now, Mahan will remain deployed, the official said.
Obama is under mounting pressure to act following reports of a massive chemical attack near Damascus that opposition groups say killed as many as 1,300 people.
The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.
Obama had repeatedly warned that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces was a "red line" that could bring about a more strident Western response to the two-year-old civil war.
On Friday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that the United States was moving forces into place ahead of possible military action against Syria.
However, Obama has also voiced caution about the kind of intervention that could draw the United States into another prolonged conflict in the Middle East.
US commanders have nevertheless prepared a range of options for Obama if he chooses to proceed with military strikes against Damascus, Hagel told reporters during a visit to Southeast Asia.
"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," Hagel said.
"And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options — whatever the president might choose."