By Phil Stewart
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel strongly suggested on Friday the United States was positioning naval forces and assets in anticipation of any decision by President Barack Obama to order military action on Syria after apparent chemical weapons use.
Hagel's comments to reporters traveling with him to Malaysia came after a defense official said the Navy would expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth cruise-missile armed warship because of the escalating civil war in Syria.
Hagel said Obama had asked the Defense Department for options on Syria, where an apparent poison gas attack has mounted pressure on the United States to intervene in the country's 2-1/2-year-old civil war.
"The Defense Department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies," he said. "And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options - whatever options the president might choose."
Asked whether it was fair to report that the United States had moved assets, Hagel said: "I don't think I said that. I said that we're always having to prepare - as we give the president options - prepare our assets and where they are and the capability of those assets to carry out the contingencies we give the president."
The defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the USS Mahan had finished its deployment and was due to head back to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia, but the commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet has decided to keep the ship in the region, the defense official said.
The official stressed the Navy had received no orders to prepare for any military operations regarding Syria.
The comments came as senior U.S. officials weighed choices ranging from increased diplomatic pressure to the use of force, including possible air strikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, administration sources said.
Hagel said he believed the international community was moving swiftly in getting the facts about what took place. At the same time, he cautioned that if Assad's forces did indeed use chemical weapons against its own people, that "there may be another attack coming." That adds urgency to any decisions by the international community, he said.
"So a very quick assessment of what happened, and whatever appropriate response should be made, that needs to happen within that time frame of responsible action," said Hagel, who declined to specify a time frame.
The Syrian government denies being responsible for the attack and has in the past accused rebels of using chemical weapons, an allegation that Western officials have dismissed.
Asked about the possibility of unilateral action, Hagel said the United States would never give up its sovereign right to act, but added that Syria was an international issue.
"The international community, I believe, should and will act in concert on these kinds of issues," he said. "If the intelligence and the facts bear out, which it appears to be what happened, use of chemical weapons, then that isn't just a United States issue. This is an international community issue."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott)