U.S. May Fire Cruise Missiles On Syrian Military

The Obama administration is considering military action against Syria. The debate over what to do follows the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government last week.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And we turn now to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for more on what the Obama administration might do in Syria. And, Tom, as we just heard in Michele's report, Secretary Kerry made the case today that Syria's government did use chemical weapons last week against its own people. Did he provide any evidence?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, Secretary Kerry laid out circumstantial evidence to make the case, first, that chemical weapons were used. He talked about what he called gut-wrenching video showing symptoms of chemical agents, people dying with convulsions and spasms, no sign of blood or visible wounds. He talked about the large number stricken and also firsthand accounts of groups like Doctors Without Borders.

Then he made the case that it was the Syrian government that was responsible. He said the Syrian regime has custody of these chemical weapons. They have the rockets to deliver them, and they were intent also on clearing these very areas where the attacks took place. But he said U.N. inspectors are still gathering evidence, and so is the U.S. intelligence community.

SIEGEL: Well, given what Secretary Kerry said today, is it all but inevitable now that there will be some type of military response?

BOWMAN: You know, most people I talked with at the Pentagon think there will be some type of military response, and most are predicting that the military will use cruise missiles fired from Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean. And the French and the British are also supportive of taking action. They have ships in the Mediterranean as well, so they could possibly take part in this too.

Now, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has been in Jordan, meeting with regional defense ministers, talking about Syria. He's due back tomorrow, and there are supposed to be more high-level meetings about what to do.

SIEGEL: Let's say there are cruise missile strikes. What would be the targets of the cruise missiles?

BOWMAN: Well, they're talking about military targets. So you're looking at command and control centers, military headquarters. You could target rocket launchers, as Secretary Kerry said the regime has rockets to carry chemical munitions, also missile sites. Even Syrian military air fields could be hit as well.

SIEGEL: And the objective here, is it to strike directly at the assets for waging chemical warfare? Is it to punish the Syrian armed forces? Is it to tip the balance of the war? What do you hear?

BOWMAN: Well, it seems like the idea is to target his military and to send this punishing message about his use of chemical weapons. But there are complaints that this won't achieve much. It won't tip the balance in the conflict. It won't prevent Assad from conducting more attacks on rebel forces. It doesn't really change the situation on the ground.

And there are complaints that - from some analysts - that this is just not well thought through. There's no strategy here. Others say, listen, you're going to war whatever the option you choose. You can't simply turn it off once the shooting starts.

SIEGEL: Which leads to another question: If the U.S. and allies do attack, what happens next? If the war goes on, does the conflict and America's role in it escalate?

BOWMAN: It certainly could, and that's a concern of General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He's not eager for military action. And also, what does Assad do? Does he mount even greater attacks on rebel forces, maybe not with chemical weapons, but with artillery, mortars, aircraft? And if so, then what does the United States do? The rebels would presumably call for more U.S. help, and then the question is, what do you do after that?

SIEGEL: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

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