Syria Mission Creep
Is U.S. planning against Syria moving beyond just chemical weapons?
Well, so much for that talk last week that the United States was merely planning to lob a few Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria:
On Wednesday, administration officials spent a second day exhorting lawmakers to approve the resolution, arguing that while the strike is aimed specifically at the government’s use of chemical weapons, it also would degrade Mr. Assad’s overall military strength—suggesting a broader purpose.
“Is there a downstream collateral benefit to what will happen in terms of the enforcement of the chemical weapons effort? The answer is yes, it will degrade his military capacity,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Taking out Mr. Assad’s helicopters, for example, would have a significant impact. The regime uses them to transport troops and supplies. Without them, Mr. Assad would have to rely more heavily on ground convoys, which are easier to attack.
The White House declined to comment on the possible use of bombers or any other targeting changes. A senior administration official said the scope of targets never had been limited to Syria’s chemical weapons.
The Pentagon’s new planning stems from Mr. Assad moving equipment, including Russian-made helicopters, to bases around the country while the U.S. debates, a change that could require the Pentagon to use many more Tomahawk cruise missiles and other types of munitions than initially envisioned.
Moreover, U.S. officials say, Mr. Assad has moved aircraft and other equipment into hardened bunkers and shelters. In some cases, destroying these hardened targets, officials say, could require the use of multiple Tomahawks.
The Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean carry about 40 Tomahawks each. Air Force bombers could carry dozens more munitions, potentially allowing the U.S. to carry out follow-on strikes if the first wave doesn’t destroy the targets.
Among options available are B-52 bombers, which can carry cruise missiles; low-flying B1s that are based in Qatar and carry long-range, air-to-surface missiles; and B-2 stealth bombers, which are based in Missouri and carry heavy guided bombs.
Some of this, of course, is the inevitable result of the fact that U.S. action against Syria is being delayed by several weeks at least while Congress weighs on. Nonetheless, one does wonder if the Administration is using the excuse of “degrading Syria’s chemical weapons abilities” to put its thumb on the scale on the side of the rebels in the civil war. For reasons that have been discussed at length already, it’s not at all clear that a post-Assad Syria would be any more in America’s national interests than the current regime. Indeed, it’s possible it could be worse. For that reason alone, stepping up the missing like this should raise some serious concerns.
The question, of course, is what news like this might have on the fate of the Syria AUMF in Congress. In their appearances before the relevant House and Senate this week, Secretaries Hagel and Kerry, along with JCS Chairman Dempsey, have emphasized repeatedly that the Administration is seeking authorization to use for for a specific, limited, purpose. While there has been commentary along the way that such strikes could have an impact on the Assad regime’s ability to strike against the rebels with conventional forces, all three have made clear that the President was not seeking the authority to intervene in the Syrian civil war on one side or the other. News of this type of expanded military planning, though, seems to belie those comments significantly and suggest that a strike would see the United States acting as air support for the rebels. To the extent that there are members of the House and Senate already expressing doubt about the wisdom of this mission, such news could cause problems for the chances that the resolution will ultimately pass.