WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama met with his national security team to discuss his options in Syria on Saturday, as an international relief group said Syrian hospitals reportedly treated 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of chemical weapons usage after an attack that killed civilians.
Obama convened the Saturday summit at the White House amid pressure for the administration to respond to the attack in Syria, which if confirmed, would be Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most flagrant violation yet of Obama’s “red line” warning against the use of chemical warfare.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Saturday that Obama had asked the Defense Department for “options” in a situation that Obama described on Friday as a “big event of grave concern.”
U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss ship movements publicly.
A White House official said Saturday Obama had directed U.S. intelligence agencies to “gather facts and evidence” to determine what happened and that “once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.”
The official said the U.S. has a “range of options available” and that Obama would “act very deliberately so that we’re making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria.”
Doctors Without Borders said Saturday that three hospitals in Syria it supports are reporting that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals on the day of the attack last week in eastern Damascus. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.
Doctors Without Borders has not been able to access the facilities due to “significant security risks,” the international medical group said, adding that it has a “strong and reliable collaboration” with medical networks and hospitals in the area.
Medical staff working in the Syrian facilities provided detailed information to the group’s doctors regarding “large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, Doctors Without Borders’ director of operations.
Patients were treated using atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms, which the aid group said it’s now trying to replenish.
Janssens said his group “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.” But he added, “the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events — characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers — strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”
He said the use would “constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”