Aug 26, 2013

    US yet to decide on Syria

    UNITED States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday that the US military was ready to take action against the Syrian regime if ordered, but stressed that Washington was still evaluating claims of a chemical-weapons attack.

    "President Obama has asked the Defence Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that," he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. "Again, we are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options."

    He said the US and its allies were assessing intelligence on allegations that President Bashar Al-Assad's forces unleashed chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus last week as he battles an uprising that began in March 2011.

    "I wouldn't go further than that, until we have more intelligence based on facts," Mr Hagel said.

    He spoke after a meeting with his Malaysian counterpart, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, as he started a week-long South-east Asia tour to stress Washington's much-touted renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

    But his attention has been diverted by crises in Syria and Egypt, where security forces have cracked down on supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi.

    Mr Hagel phoned Egypt's army chief from Kuala Lumpur to appeal for a peaceful resolution of political conflicts there, and has been in touch with top US national-security advisers on Syria.

    Mr Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to move closer to pinning blame on Mr Assad's forces.

    A Downing Street statement said the US and British leaders "are both gravely concerned by...increasing signs that this was a significant chemical-weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people".

    Syria warned the US against any military action in its civil war, saying it would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East".

    The Syrian government and rebel forces have accused each other of using chemical weapons. Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died of "neurotoxic" symptoms stemming from Wednesday's incident.

    After his two-day stop in Malaysia, Mr Hagel heads to Indonesia and then Brunei for a gathering of defence ministers from Asean and other regional players.