Pentagon Prepares For Strikes On Syria

President Obama has asked Congress for the authority to attack, citing evidence that Syria's government used chemical weapons against its own people. Planners must tailor strikes that are not too aggressive to satisfy legislators who don't want the Syria crisis to escalate. But they must develop plans that would be robust enough to make a difference in the war to satisfy others.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Pentagon is getting ready if Congress decides on a strike. Let's look more closely at that military planning and how it's evolving, partly driven by politics on the Hill.

And to help us, we're joined now in the studio by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are the targeting options now? I mean, what - are they getting more robust than has been talked about up to now?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon's looking at several options. Some are narrowly focused on chemical weapons, delivery systems like rockets and missiles, military command and control for chemical weapons headquarters. And the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, on the Sunday talk shows, talked about this. He said this is, quote, not an extended air campaign. He called it, quote, targeted, limited, consequential action. And he said it was designed to reinforce a prohibition against these weapons.

But I'm told military planners are going beyond that to a wider range of targets, including surface-to-air missiles that are part of Syria's air defense system, and some missiles set along the coast that could threaten ships. They're also looking at more high-ranking military headquarters, not just those tied to chemical weapons. But these are just some of the options, and, again, some would be more robust.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tom, can they still hit those targets, that wider list of targets, while only using missile strikes, basically not endangering a single American life?

BOWMAN: That's right. It would be missiles fired from Navy ships in the Eastern Mediterranean, far beyond the range of any of Assad's defense systems. There's also talk that there could be bombers involved in this effort. And, again, they could use standoff weapons that would not put them over Syria.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

BOWMAN: But it could be hundreds of miles off. So, at this point, clearly, with these kinds of strikes, you're not talking about anything that could threaten any American lives.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about that pressure from Congress when it comes to this strike. It seems to be expanding, or at least plans for a possible strike are expanding that strike. But President Obama initially, and continued to stress they would be limited. What's going on, here?

BOWMAN: Well, it's almost trying to thread the needle, here. On the one hand, he's trying to get authorization from Congress pushing limited strikes. And that appeals to some skeptics on the Hill who want to support the president, but don't want the U.S. role to escalate. But some are saying that's not good enough. Republican senators like John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, they've insisted on more robust air attacks here, and that's why I think the Pentagon's looking at more aggressive options. But, again, the military doesn't want to do too little. They don't want to do too much. They're kind of working all these options. It's really kind of a muddle, I think, at this point.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to make sense of that muddle, if there is sense to be made of it, Tom Bowman. Because one of the largest veins of skepticism in Congress is people saying: What are we going to accomplish with these strikes? How does it fit into a larger strategy? Are you getting a sense from military planners what the answer to that question is, what happens after airstrikes, what the long-range plan is here?

BOWMAN: There's a lot of skepticism in the active-duty military and retired military that there is no strategy. There's no way ahead. One of the things you're hearing from Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to push for training the rebels, arming the rebels. And he's been pushing that since last year, along with other senior people in the administration, some of whom have retired, like Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. That seems to be the way ahead, a much more robust training program for Syrian rebels that would be led by the Pentagon. Right now, it's being done by the CIA on a small scale.

INSKEEP: And you get news reports about rebels not receiving any weapons or anything at all.

BOWMAN: Right. I'm told they have not received weapons yet, but they're on the way from the CIA. But one Pentagon official told me this is going to go from boutique training to industrial-strength training.

INSKEEP: OK. Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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