David Sanger. THE AGE.September 7, 2013
Washington: US President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria.
The new planning is a response to intelligence suggesting that President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates military action.
Officials said Mr Obama was determined to put more emphasis on the ”degrade” part of the administration’s goal in a military strike against Syria – to ”deter and degrade” Dr Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.
That means expanding beyond the original list of 50 or so main target sites developed with French forces before Mr Obama delayed action last Saturday.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using US and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is also a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.
The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves – which would risk a potential catastrophe – but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the weapons and carried out attacks against Syrian rebels, US military officials said on Thursday.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals – air defences, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons.
Senior officials know that to win the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, yet to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.
”They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said. ”The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”’
One senior official said Mr Obama intended to become more involved in direct lobbying for a military authorisation and there was talk of an address to the nation.
As the target list expands, the administration is moving closer to carrying out military action that could also tip the balance on the ground, even though the administration insists this is not the primary intent.
The bulk of the US attack is still expected to be by cruise missiles from some or all of the four destroyers within striking range of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean. But military planners are now also preparing options to include attacks by bombers which could carry more munitions, potentially allowing the US to carry out more strikes if the first wave does not destroy the targets.
In recent days the US Navy has moved the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz into the Red Sea, within striking distance of Syria.
But Defence Department officials said the carrier and its squadrons of F-18 Super Hornets were not likely to join any attack unless Syria launched major retaliatory strikes.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told legislators on Wednesday that a US operation would cost ”tens of millions of dollars”, the first time any administration official has put even a rough price tag on the possible strike.