Reports: US Military Mission in Syria Expanding Behind the Scenes

Posted: Sep 06, 2013 1:06 PM

The White House has made it perfectly clear that they consider a Congressional vote on using military force against Syria to be a token gesture.  No matter how it turns out, they say, the president still retains the authority to strike.  And he may very well have to test that proposition.  Some opponents of the potential attack say that it's too little, too late, and won't impact the outcome on the ground.  Most opponents, though, argue that it's an unwise use of American resources, and fear that Syria could become another failed state in the region.  The former group may be won over by new indications that the Obama administration has instructed the Pentagon to draw up plans for a more intense salvo than previously expected:

President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.  Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan. For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.

Setting aside the fact that someone is leaking battle plans to the New York Times and others (these stories describe possible targets pretty specifically), are these expanded orders coming down based on strategic military interests, or domestic politics?  Perhaps both:

Mr. Obama’s instructions come as most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favor of a military response to a chemical attack are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes carried out by the United States, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.  Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order 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 Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.” Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military. 

One of the implicit assumptions throughout much of the Syria debate is that the US would strike, the Assad regime would sustain a blow, and that would be the end of it.  No retaliation.  No escalation.  Well, if we're planning to fly bombing sorties over Syria, that's a higher risk proposition than lobbing cruise missiles from war ships parked in the Mediterranean.   What happens if the Syrians shoot at our bombers?  What if they succeed in bringing one down?  Does the skirmish simply end there?  These questions cut against Sec. Kerry's statements on Capitol Hill suggesting that a Syrian operation wouldn't qualify as "war in the classic sense."  Now we have alarming reports that Assad's backers in Tehran are plotting a significant retaliation against the American embassy in Baghdad.  This intel is apparently credible enough that the State Department is evacuating "non-essential" personnel from (under-protected) diplomatic missions in Lebanon.  Iran may also target US Naval vessels, just as pro-Assad Vladimir Putin's Navy arrives in the neighborhood.  Are these the hallmarks of a relatively smooth, limited, surgical strike?  Would direct Iranian involvement in retaliatory attacks against American interests expand the conflict exponentially?  It would have to -- right?  We'll see how many of these questions the president answers when he addresses the nation on Syria next Tuesday evening.  That announcement guarantees another full weekend of discussion and debate, as momentum on Capitol Hill seems to be running counter to White House designs.  Before you go, be sure to read this piece about the long-standing terrorist ties of a prominent member of the "good" Syrian opposition.  I'll leave you with my discussion of the president's credibility on Fox News yesterday evening:

- What's this about? The Russians aren't acting like bystanders here.

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