- Four US destroyers, including Donald Cook armed with Tomahawk missiles, believed to be in Mediterranean;
- The giant USS Harry S Truman, with 90 aircraft and a five-strong strike group, is steaming towards Europe;
- Comes amid increasing tensions with Russia following Syrian chemical atrocity that left 40 dead on Saturday;
- Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is said to have hidden his military assets on Russian bases in the country;
A huge task force of 12 warships is setting sail for Syria in one of the biggest concentrations of US naval power since the 2003 Iraq invasion, it has emerged.
The giant nuclear powered USS Harry S Truman, carrying 90 aircraft and escorted by its five-strong strike group of destroyers and cruisers, is powering towards Europe and the Middle East.
A further four destroyers are believed to be in or near the Mediterranean already, including the Donald Cook, Porter, Carney and Laboon along with two nuclear-powered submarines, Georgia and John Warner.
The deployment of 12 US warships on one mission is a huge concentration of fire power, one of the biggest since six aircraft carriers supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It comes amid heightened tensions as Donald Trump continues to consider launching airstrikes on Syria in retaliation for a chemical gas attack in a rebel-held town on Saturday. Russia has threatened to take down any missiles launched at the Assad regime’s forces using its fearsome S-400 defence system.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has reportedly moved his military assets to Russian bases in the country in the hope that the US and its allies would be reluctant to launch strikes anywhere near Vladimir Putin’s forces.
On Thursday, the White House said that a ‘final decision’ had not been made on Syria.
Donald Trump had said earlier in the day that Americans won’t have to wait long for a response to Saturday’s horrifying chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town that left at least 40 dead and others gasping for air.
But at least two of his top advisers couldn’t agree on whether there’s sufficient proof to blame the atrocity on dictator Bashar al-Assad’s government, leaving the possibility of a retaliatory attack an open-ended question.
America’s allies and adversaries alike were awaiting a signal from the White House about whether Trump will follow through on his warning that missiles ‘will be coming,’ potentially putting Russian troops in harm’s way.
At close of business, the White House said that Trump had just concluded a meeting with his national security team and would be speaking again later to the heads of government in France and the U.K.
‘No final decision has been made,’ press secretary Sarah Sanders said. ‘We are continuing to asses intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies.’
Trump suggested that he’d have an answer in hours, telling reporters, ‘It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that, but as I said this morning we’ve done a great job with ISIS. We have just absolutely decimated ISIS. But now we have to make some further decisions, so they’ll be made fairly soon.’
But on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. hasn’t reached any conclusions.
‘I believe there was a chemical attack,’ Mattis told lawmakers, ‘and we are looking for the actual evidence.’ He said he wanted to see inspectors on the ground in Syria ‘within the week.’
‘As each day goes by – as you know, it is a non-persistent gas, so it becomes more and more difficult to confirm it.’
The USS Harry S Truman and its support ships were due to leave Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia on Wednesday.
It is accompanied by the cruiser USS Normandy and destroyers USS Farragut, USS Forrest Sherman, USS Bulkeley and USS Arleigh Burke.
Also among the strike group’s ships is the German frigate FGS Hessen, a state-of-the-art vessel specialising in air defense.
US Navy officials said the Hessen is the only type of ship in the Western world with three kinds of surface-to-air missiles. Its radar has a detection range of more than 200 nautical miles for air targets.
Already in position is the USS Donald Cook, an American destroyer equipped with up to 60 Tomahawk land attack missiles.
In April last year Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat Airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held Khan Sheikhun.
These strikes were launched from two US warships stationed in the Mediterranean.
Trump and his national security aides on Thursday discussed US options on Syria, where he has threatened missile strikes in response to a poison gas attack, as a Russian envoy voiced fears of wider conflict between Washington and Moscow.
Worries about a confrontation between Russia, Syria’s big ally, and the West have been running high since Trump said on Wednesday that missiles ‘will be coming’ in response to the attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Trump tempered those remarks on Thursday and even as he consulted allies such and Britain and France, who could join in any US-led strikes on Syria, there were signs of efforts to prevent the crisis from spiraling out of control.
‘Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!’ Trump wrote on Twitter, raising the prospect that an attack might not be as imminent as he seemed to suggest the day before.
Trump met his national security team on the situation in Syria later in the day and ‘no final decision has been made,’ the White House said in a statement.
‘We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,’ it said.
That did not necessarily signal, however, that Trump was cooling to the idea of military action, especially given the high stakes in Syria. U.S. officials noted that Washington was still assessing intelligence and coordinating allies.
Trump spoke to British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday and the two leaders talked about the ‘need for a joint response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons,’ the White House said.
May’s office said they agreed on the need to deter Assad’s government from further such attacks.
Trump was also due to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said France had proof the Syrian government carried out the attack near Damascus, which aid groups have said killed dozens of people, and will decide whether to strike back when all the necessary information has been gathered.
‘We have proof that last week … chemical weapons were used, at least with chlorine, and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad,’ Macron said, without offering details of any evidence.
Macron told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a telephone call Friday he wanted to ‘intensify’ talks on bringing peace to Syria, Macron’s office said.
‘The president of the Republic said he wanted the dialogue between France and Russia to continue and intensify in order to bring peace and stability to Syria,’ the French presidency said after the call, which came as the West ponders possible strikes on Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack.
Two US officials familiar with an investigation of samples from Douma and the symptoms of victims said initial indications that a mix of weaponised chlorine gas and sarin were used in the attack appeared to be correct. But US intelligence agencies have not completed their assessment or reached a final conclusion, the officials said.
Russia, Syria and its other main backer, Iran, have said reports of the Douma attack were fabricated by rebels and rescue workers and have accused the United States of seeking to use it as a pretext to attack the Syrian government.
Russia said it deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces.
‘They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,’ RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defense ministry as saying.
This morning Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped that there would be no repeat of the experience of Libya and Iraq in the Syria conflict.
‘God forbid anything adventurous will be done in Syria following the Libyan and Iraqi experience,’ Lavrov told a news conference on Friday.
He said that even the smallest miscalculation in Syria could lead to new waves of migrants and that ultimatums and threats do not help the dialogue.
‘Even non-significant incidents would lead to new waves of migrants to Europe and to other consequences, which neither we nor our European neighbors need,’ Lavrov said.