The White House said the president would meet Saturday with his national security team to consider possible next steps by the United States

U.S. naval forces are moving closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers military options for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. The president emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.

The White House said the president would meet Saturday with his national security team to consider possible next steps by the United States. Officials say once the facts are clear, Mr Obama will make a decision about how to proceed.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements while saying that Mr Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria. U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.

U.S. Navy ships are capable of a variety of military action, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.

“The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options whatever options the president might choose,” Mr Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has denied allegations that it was behind that attack, calling them “absolutely baseless” and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.

Mr Obama remained cautious about getting involved in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people and now includes Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. He made no mention of the “red line” of chemical weapons use that he marked out for Mr Assad a year ago and that U.S. intelligence says has been breached at least on a small scale several times since.

“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 do we have the coalition to make it work?” Mr Obama said Friday. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

Mr Obama conceded in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” programme that the episode is a “big event of grave concern” that requires American attention. He said any large-scale chemical weapons usage would affect “core national interests” of the United States and its allies. But nothing he said signalled a shift toward U.S. action.

U.S. defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss ship movements publicly. But if the U.S. wants to send a message to Mr Assad, the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.

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