Pentagon Is Cautious On Possible Syria Strikes

Military officials are concerned that a limited strike against Syria could prompt the Assad regime to target civilians with more conventional weapons. Guest host Wade Goodwyn speaks with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

While the president's decision to seek authorization from Congress puts aside the prospect that military action against Syria is imminent, it does not mean the questions about the wisdom of military action go away. Far from it. Now, as Ailsa just suggested, those questions will be front and center in the coming congressional debate. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the challenge of using military force in Syria. Tom, let's start with an issue the president raised in his statement yesterday. He said that waiting another week or month would not affect the military's ability to strike key targets in Syria. Is that right?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Wade, that is right. And some of these sites are, you know, like command and control headquarters and, you know, other sites, you know, that's not going to change. It'll be consistent. You can't move a headquarters, for example. But some other things he could move. He could move rockets and missiles, for example. So, what you're going to see in the coming weeks is the U.S. intelligence community and others keeping an eye on Syria with satellites, with drones, with surveillance aircraft. And they'll adjust their targets as needed should these military strikes occur.

GOODWYN: So, let's shift to what the debate will be like in Congress. What are some of the key issues legislators will want answers on?

BOWMAN: Well, the complaint from someone like Senator John McCain of Arizona is that these potential strikes are too limited. He wants it to go further. He wants to see a regime change. Others will say, well, wait a minute. Why are you just doing small one- or two-day strikes? What else are you going to do? What's the next step here? Now, the president has said repeatedly he wants limited strikes, no boots on the ground, no regime change; that it will be narrowly focused on chemical weapons. And basically, he's sending that message we don't want you to use them again. But now the unanswered question is what does Assad do? He may go after the rebels with conventional weapons, with artillery and tanks and aircraft. Not use chemical weapons but just start killing wholesale, the rebels. And then what happens? That could escalate this thing because the rebels will say we need your help. Come help us again. That could move even more refugees into Jordan and Turkey. So, it really could be the start of something big here.

GOODWYN: Well, are there other options for down the road, should the U.S. role need to escalate?

BOWMAN: Well, General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, listen, if asked to do so, we could build up support for the rebels. We could do a lot more for them. Until now, the support for the rebels has really fallen to the U.S. intelligence community, providing nonlethal aid, such as radios, and a little bit of training here and there. But you could provide a lot more support to the opposition - training, coordination, weapons. So, you could see that kind of discussion in the weeks ahead.

GOODWYN: You mentioned that General Dempsey is on the record as being pretty skeptical that American military intervention could make a difference in Syria. Is Dempsey going to be caught in the middle a bit, between supporting the president and answering tough questions from Congress?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, I don't think so. If the president decides he wants to go forward with limited military strikes, General Dempsey will salute and go ahead. I'm sure some members of Congress will try to pull them in their direction, either not having military action or doing more. But, again, General Dempsey has, in a couple of letters to Congress, has basically said the best way forward is to provide more support to the rebels.

GOODWYN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: Thanks, Wade.

GOODWYN: You're listening to NPR News.

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