By JULIE PACE
and MATTHEW LEE
WASHINGTON - The U.S. military stands ready to strike Syria at once if President Barack Obama gives the order, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today as the United States prepared to formally declare 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. Obama has not yet decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, officials said. The president said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line."
Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
On Monday, as he sought support from allies, Secretary of State John Kerry called the evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack "undeniable." And he said that international standards against chemical weapons "cannot be violated without consequences."
The Obama administration's tougher language marked the clearest justification yet for any U.S. military action in Syria, which most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.
Hagel told BBC television today that the Defense Department has "moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take."
The Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea within range of targets inside Syria. The U.S. also has warplanes in the region.
"We are ready to go," Hagel said.