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U.S. Mulls Over More Possible Targets For Syria Strike

Sep 9, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 5:20 pm

As U.S. lawmakers weigh whether to support an attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, military planners have expanded the target list for a potential strike.

The Pentagon had been focused on attacking Syria with so-called standoff weapons — cruise missiles, for example. Launched from ships, they can attack Syrian positions without placing American pilots in danger. Cruise missiles are very precise, and perfect for hitting fixed targets, such as command-and-control centers the Syrian military relies on.

Hitting those targets is still the best way to deter the use of chemical weapons and to weaken the Syrian military in general, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"If you take out command-and-control facilities, you weaken every aspect of the operation," Cordesman says.

Adding Assets To List Of Targets

Since that initial target list was drawn up, the Pentagon has broadened it. In part, that's a response to Congress. The language of a measure moving through the Senate now says it is U.S. policy to "change the momentum" on the battlefield in Syria, to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict. As a result, U.S. planners might add the regime's arsenal of missile sites, many on mobile launchers.

That won't be easy: The Syrian military has had plenty of time to move those assets around. Trying to take out those weapons creates two problems, says Jeremy Binney of Jane's Defence Weekly.

"Keeping track of all those can be challenging for an intelligence point of view," he says. "But also if they move them into civilian areas, there's going to be that risk of collateral damage."

But the military also may add targets that, in addition to weakening Assad, will strengthen the rebels. Binney says Pentagon planners may well decide to take out Syria's military helicopter fleet.

"That would really limit their ability to keep resupplying some of these garrisons that are under siege, especially up in the north," Binney says. "Part of the battle has been a Syrian strategy to keep these outposts resupplied."

But in this limited strike, expanding the list of targets probably won't be enough to tip the balance in favor of the rebels, according to Cordesman. He believes the intervention might move to a second phase.

"The follow-up to cruise missile strikes may well be more money, more weapons, different types of weapons to the rebels, with a real focus only on the moderate rebel groups," Cordesman says.

The Precedent In Iraq

The U.S. has been trying to get weapons to the rebels for months, with little success.

Relying on a rebel army is one option the U.S. did not have during the last confrontation over chemical weapons: In 1998, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Fox after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to let the United Nations inspect suspected chemical weapons sites.

The mission was similar: The U.S. used cruise missiles and bombing raids with the aim of deterring and degrading Saddam's ability to use weapons of mass destruction.

Then, as now, it's difficult to define success for that kind of military mission, says Mark Conversino of the Air War College.

"Degrading is a pretty elastic term, and even after a handful of pretty successful sorties, you can say, 'Well, we've degraded that,' " he says.

By many measures, Conversino says, Desert Fox did erode Saddam's military capabilities. Nevertheless, five years later, he was still in power, and the U.S. launched a full-scale invasion to finish the job.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While Senator Collins and other lawmakers consider whether or not to support a military strike, President Obama is ramping up his campaign to gather support. The president will do several TV interviews today and give an address to the nation on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to plan. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on what the military targets are likely to be if those strikes take place.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The Pentagon has been focused on attacking Syria with so-called standoff weapons, like cruise missiles. Launched from ships, they can attack Syrian positions without placing American pilots in danger. Cruise missiles are very precise, and perfect for hitting fixed targets, like command-and-control centers the Syrian military relies on.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says hitting those targets is still the best way to deter the use of chemical weapons and to weaken the Syrian military in general.

DR. ANTHONY CORDESMAN: If you take out key command-and-control facilities, you weaken every aspect of a military operation.

ABRAMSON: Since that initial target list was drawn up, the Pentagon has broadened it. In part, that's a response to Congress. The language of a measure moving through the Senate now says it is U.S. policy to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict. So U.S. planners might add the regime's arsenal of missile sites, many on mobile launchers.

That won't be easy. The Syrian military has had plenty of time to move those assets around. So Jeremy Binney of Jane's Defence Weekly says trying to take out those weapons creates two problems.

JEREMY BINNEY: Just because keeping track of all those can be challenging from an intelligence point of view, but also if they move them into civilian areas, there's going to be that risk of collateral damage.

ABRAMSON: But the military may also add targets that, in addition to weakening Assad, will strengthen the rebels. Jeremy Binney says Pentagon planners may well decide to take out Syria's military helicopter fleet.

BINNEY: That would really limit their ability to keep resupply some of these garrisons that are under siege, especially up in the North. Part of the battle really here has been seemingly a Syrian strategy in trying to keep these outposts resupplied.

ABRAMSON: But in this limited strike, expanding the list of targets probably won't be enough to tip the balance in favor of the rebels, according to Anthony Cordesman of CSIS. He believes the intervention might well move to a second phase.

CORDESMAN: A follow-up to cruise missile strikes may well be more money, more weapons, different types of weapons to the rebels with a real focus only on the moderate rebel groups.

ABRAMSON: The U.S. has been trying to get weapons to the rebels for months with little success. Relying on a rebel army is one option the U.S. did not have during the last confrontation over chemical weapons. In 1998, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Fox after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to let the United Nations inspect his chemical weapons facilities.

The mission was similar. The U.S. used cruise missiles and bombing raids to deter and degrade Saddam's ability to use weapons of mass destruction. Mark Conversino of the Air War College says then, as now, it's difficult to define success for that kind of military mission.

DR. MARK CONVERSINO: Degrading is a pretty elastic term. After even a handful of successful sorties, you can say, well, we've degraded that.

ABRAMSON: Conversino says, by many measures, Desert Fox did erode Saddam's ability to deploy chemical weapons. Nevertheless, five years later, he was still in power, and the U.S. ended up launching a full-scale invasion. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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