Pressure Builds On White House To Intervene In Syria

The White House says it still needs to corroborate information it has received that suggests Syria's government has used chemical weapons. That act would cross a "red line" drawn by President Obama. At that point, the question becomes: What might the U.S. do in response? The Pentagon is already planning.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. The White House tried to clarify its message on Syria today, saying it is still studying evidence that the government there has used chemical weapons. Here's press secretary Jay Carney.

JAY CARNEY: We are continuing to work to build on the assessments made by the intelligence community. The degrees of confidence here are varying, this is not an airtight case.

CORNISH: While the administration continues to investigate, there is growing pressure to intervene in Syria's two-year civil war. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman looks at some of the military options available to the president.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Meeting with reporters yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel didn't want to talk about red lines or what could trigger American intervention or consequences for the Syrian regime. He stuck to what the Pentagon might have to do.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: My role as secretary of Defense is to give the president options. We'll be prepared to do that at such time that the president requires options.

BOWMAN: Senator John McCain, who is pressing for the U.S. to do more about Syria, outlined those options.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Now, I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this bloodletting and massacre. And that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no-fly zone and provide weapons to the people in the resistance who we trust.

BOWMAN: Three options - safe areas inside Syria for refugees, likely along both the Turkish and Jordanian borders; a no-fly zone to prevent the Assad regime from using aircraft to attack the rebels; and the last option, providing heavy weapons to the rebel forces. Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says all three have drawbacks.

First, safe areas. Cordesman says they raise practical questions.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: One has to very careful about safe zones. Exactly what do you really mean? Are you going to be able to actually feed the people, house the people? Are you really going to be able to protect them?

BOWMAN: Protect them. The U.S. military or some other country's military having warplanes circle overhead.

CORDESMAN: It is not really what it sounds like, a safe haven. It is actually an intervention in a civil war, which would, one way or another, tilt the balance.

BOWMAN: Meaning the U.S. would be going to war, essentially seizing a portion of a sovereign country. The second option, a no-fly zone. Cordesman says to create one, you'd first have to take out Syria's formidable air defenses. That would take time. It took weeks and a massive number of U.S. and allied warplanes to destroy Libya's much less robust air defenses. And, again, things could escalate.

Finally, there's the option of providing more arms to Syria's rebels, who already are getting weapons from a number of countries.

CORDESMAN: We would be best off providing these men portable air defense systems and anti-tank guided weapons.

BOWMAN: Of course, the downside is they could fall into the wrong hands.

CORDESMAN: That's right. Again, we talk about options. The best of bad options is still a bad option.

BOWMAN: All three options have downsides and not one being discussed would deal with the issue at hand, chemical weapons. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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