WASHINGTON — — U.S. military forces stand 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 declare formally that chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian civil war.
U.S. officials said the growing intelligence pointed strongly toward Bashar Assad's government as the culprit — 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 Syria's civil war began more than two years ago. As of Tuesday morning, officials said President Barack Obama had not yet decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, a move he said last year would cross a red line.
The Obama administration has already said there is "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria last week. Officials had planned to make a more formal declaration linking Assad to the attack on Tuesday, but the release of the intelligence report appeared to have been pushed back until later in the week. It was unclear why the release was delayed.
A U.S. official said some of the evidence includes signals intelligence — information gathered from intercepted communications. The U.S. assessment is also based on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts.
The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
It's unlikely international military action would begin before Thursday. That's when British Prime Minister David Cameron will convene an emergency meeting of Parliament where lawmakers are expected to vote on a motion clearing the way for a British response to the chemical weapons attack.