The U.S. military is ready to act immediately should President Barack Obama order action against Syria over a chemical weapons attack, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a television interview with the BBC on Tuesday.
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"We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take," Hagel said during a trip to Brunei, according to a partial transcript provided by the BBC.
Asked if the U.S. military was ready to respond just "like that," Hagel said: "We are ready to go, like that."
U.S. allies were drafting plans for air strikes and other military action against Syria on Tuesday, as President Bashar Assad's enemies vowed to punish a poison gas attack that Washington called a "moral obscenity".
Facing Russian and Chinese disapproval that will complicate hopes for a united front backed by international law, and keen to win over wary voters at home, Western leaders seem in no rush to pull the trigger. British Prime Minister David Cameron called parliament back from recess for a session on Syria on Thursday.
UN experts trying to establish what killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last Wednesday were finally able to cross the frontline on Monday to see survivors - despite being shot at in government-held territory. But they put off a second visit until Wednesday.
However, U.S. officials said President Barack Obama already had little doubt Assad's forces were to blame. Turkey, Syria's neighbor and part of the U.S.-led NATO military pact, called it a "crime against humanity" that demanded international reaction.
The Syrian government, which denies using gas, said it would press on with its offensive against rebels around the capital.
Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said U.S. strikes would help Al-Qaida allies but called Western leaders "delusional" if they hoped to aid the rebels to create a balance of power in Syria.
In Britain, whose forces have supported the U.S. military in a succession of wars, Cameron called for an appropriate level of retribution for using chemical weapons.
"Our forces are making contingency plans," a spokesman for Cameron told reporters. London and its allies would make a "proportionate response" to the "utterly abhorrent" attack.
Top generals from the United States and European and Middle Eastern allies met in Jordan for what could be a council of war.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people ... What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world.
"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.
"And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable."
How such an intervention, likely to be limited to some form of air strike, would affect the course of Syria's civil war is far from clear. Obama, Cameron and French President Francois
Hollande face tough questions on how far they want to use force to achieve a long-stated common goal of forcing Assad from power.