Wall Street Journal
August 28, 2013
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials have firmed up plans for military strikes against Syria that would likely use cruise-missile strikes to “deter and degrade” President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces without dramatically altering the country’s balance of power, senior defense officials said Tuesday.
The plans, which await a sign-off from President Barack Obama, could rely on four U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean, each armed with dozens of advanced Tomahawk cruise missiles that can be fired at Syrian military and intelligence compounds, front-line artillery batteries and other regime targets.
Not on the list of targets are chemical-weapons supplies, given the potential for widespread collateral damage, the defense officials said.
The Obama administration’s planning appears likely to mirror, in scope and tone, punitive strikes taken under President Bill Clinton in 1998 against al Qaeda, and Operation Desert Fox, a four-day military campaign by U.S. and British forces against Iraq in December that same year.
The Obama administration is close to a decision about how to respond to Mr. Assad and his suspected use of chemical weapons last week. A final determination is expected within days. Meanwhile, support within the administration is broadening for targeted strikes designed to send a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, officials said.
The U.S. Navy beefed up its presence in the eastern Mediterranean last week, as U.S. officials said Washington had strong indications that Mr. Assad’s regime had attacked civilians with chemical weapons.
The four destroyers currently in position are typically equipped with a few dozen advanced cruise missiles that would be capable of hitting multiple targets in Syria. They are positioned far enough from Syria to avoid the regime’s Russian-made Yakhont antiship missiles, which have a range of about 200 miles, officials said.
The U.S. Navy has two aircraft carriers — the USS Truman and the USS Nimitz — in the nearby north Arabian Sea, putting their jets within striking distance of Syria if necessary, officials said. Neither carrier is expected to take part in the initial strikes, officials said.
The Navy also has submarines with cruise missiles that could contribute to the effort. Military officials declined to discuss their movements.
The Pentagon has also considered an approach that could involve targeting military airstrips, airplanes and helicopters used to attack rebel forces, and even Syrian military units linked to the suspected chemical attacks. But a more extensive target list would require use of U.S. aircraft, which demand greater complexity of operations.
Reliance on the four destroyers would likely limit the U.S. military’s potential targets, making them similar to the missile strikes of the Clinton administration. Two weeks after al Qaeda bombers hit U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people, including 12 Americans, Mr. Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan.
The attack came under criticism for its limited goals and questions raised later about whether the factory was used to make chemical weapons as stated by the Clinton administration.
In Operation Desert Fox, U.S. and British forces used cruise missiles and aircraft with an aim to degrade Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s ability to make chemical and biological weapons. The campaign came in response to Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with United Nations inspectors.
The Obama administration has so far sought to avoid becoming entangled in the Syrian civil war, and the White House stressed on Tuesday that the goal of Mr. Obama’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria wouldn’t be to overthrow Mr. Assad.
“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He did, however, say the administration still believes Mr. Assad has lost his credibility as a leader.
With the U.S. focused on punitive strikes, senior Syrian rebel commanders warned on Tuesday that military strikes would have a negligible — and possibly counterproductive — impact if they weren’t part of a broader military strategy.
The commanders, along the Turkish border, complained that Washington hasn’t delivered any weapons it has pledged to supply to the Free Syrian Army. They said that the U.S. and its allies have also yet to coordinate their attack plans inside Syria with the Supreme Military Council, which oversees the activities of dozens of rebel military commands.
The dynamic is breeding fears within the rebel command that Mr. Assad and his top lieutenants will survive strikes and seek to rally support in Syria and across the Arab world for resistance against the U.S. and allies.
“If it’s a major strike, we are with it. If it is minor, it won’t matter at all,” said Col. Ahmed Hamada, a senior SMC commander based just inside Syria’s border with Turkey. “The regime might use the attacks and say: ‘we are victims.’ They could grow more powerful.”
A limited attack might put pressure on Mr. Obama to take more decisive action to help the rebels and force Mr. Assad from power, said Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“Once you spend a few days bombing things, it’s going to change all of the strategic dynamics on the ground,” he said.
Jay Solomon in Gaziantep, Turkey, and Adam Entous in Washington contributed to this article.