Four U.S. Navy destroyers remain ready in the Eastern Mediterranean for President Obama’s call to strike the Syrian regime’s military assets, each equipped with up to 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles, defense officials said Monday.
The USS Mahan, USS Gravely, USS Barry and USS Ramage are “poised and positioned should any options be taken,” a defense official said.
The move was a response to a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime on rebels and civilians, killing 300 to 1,300 people.
Although a decision to order a military strike had not been made by late Monday, intervention seemed more likely after Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced that the United States determined that there was a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
He said the Syrian government’s initial refusal and then belated permission for U.N. inspectors to examine the site of the attack “is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”
The USS Mahan was due to rotate out of the Mediterranean last week, but the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet ordered the warship to stay.
“[The destroyers] are in position if needed, but they, to my knowledge, have received no tasking to this point, and that would come obviously from the White House,” the defense official said.
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the administration is likely to respond with cruise missile strikes or some variation, specifically “standoff weapons” that would be launched into Syria from the sea or air.
Defense officials say the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which recently entered the Arabian Sea, is not expected to be part of any military campaign on Syria and would focus on operations in Afghanistan.
Also in the Mediterranean are submarines armed with cruise missiles. Their positions are classified because they carry special operations troops.
If any military strike “comes to pass, it’s about the destroyers in the eastern Med right now,” the defense official said.
Likely targets would be Syria’s air force and munitions storage sites — assets that have provided the regime with an advantage over rebels in its 2-year-old civil war.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Saturday presented the White House with military options, including strikes from the destroyers. He has publicly advised against military intervention in Syria.
In a July 19 letter to the Senate outlining military options, Gen. Dempsey said the cost of the operation would be in the billions of dollars, depending on the duration of limited strikes. He also warned of retaliatory attacks from Syria or regime-backed terrorists.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called on Mr. Obama to “act decisively” after declaring last year that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that Syria must not cross.
“Drawing red lines before you know what you are willing to do to back them up is folly, but now that American credibility is on the line, the president cannot fail to act decisively,” he said.
The casualty estimate from the chemical attack varies widely. Doctors Without Borders estimates the dead at 355, while the Syrian opposition says 1,300 were killed.