Delay for Syria Debate Lets Pentagon Spot Missile Targets
A delay to let Congress debate authorization for U.S. military strikes sets up a cat-and-mouse game in Syria, giving Bashar al-Assad time to seek hiding places for troops and equipment as the Pentagon steps up surveillance to find targets for Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The Syrian president’s regime is already “moving resources around” and placing prisoners or other civilians in places it thinks the U.S. may attack, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers at a U.S. House hearing on Sept. 4.
The delay, though, isn’t just to Assad’s advantage, Dempsey said.
“Time works both ways,” he told a Sept. 3 Senate hearing. “We have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities and we continue to refine our targets.”
President Barack Obama announced Aug. 31 that he would ask Congress to support his decision to launch a military strike, “limited in duration and scope,” in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus. At the time, Obama said Dempsey told him “that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive -- it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, controlled by Democrats, approved a resolution Sept. 4 authorizing military action. More congressional hearings are scheduled for next week. Leaders in the Senate and House haven’t set a schedule for voting on Obama’s authorization request.
Karl Mueller, an air-power analyst with the Rand Corp., a U.S. sponsored research organization, said Dempsey’s correct to suggest that, by shifting men and materiel, Assad may expose them to U.S. surveillance.
“Moving things around in the process of hiding them can make them more visible” to intelligence agencies, Mueller said in an e-mail. “So the idea that delay helps us make an attack that’s more effective is plausible.”
The U.S.’s flexibility in hitting Syrian military assets is aided by the capabilities of the latest version of Raytheon Co. (RTN)’s Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can be redirected in flight to new targets. The Navy has four destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea from which Tomahawk missiles can be fired.
The latest Tomahawk’s “key advantage” is “you fly it and it can receive changes in targeting, changes in direction,” the Navy’s chief of operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, told reporters yesterday. “It can go up and actually loiter.”
While a delay doesn’t present “insurmountable difficulty” for the U.S., Assad will benefit from time to prepare for an attack, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War who follows the Syrian military.
The decision to wait for a vote in Congress lets Assad disperse his forces and equipment and allows Syria’s ally, Russia, to reposition some of its Black Sea fleet into the Mediterranean, Harmer said. It also provides Assad a “considerable psychological advantage within Syria,” he said.
“It strains credibility to assert that the effect of delaying action is positive for the U.S. and negative for the Assad regime,” Harmer said in an e-mail.
Amid the debate in Congress, Obama has ordered the Pentagon to put together an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to possible movements of troops by Assad’s regime, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified U.S. officials.
At the Sept. 4 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Republican Representative Doug Collins of Georgia asked whether the U.S.’s surveillance capabilities can give the military up-to-the-minute information about Syrian targets. Collins pointed to an unclassified report on last month’s chemical attack, saying it showed that the U.S. didn’t get intelligence about preparations for it until “after the fact.”
Dempsey said the U.S. has “different kinds of intelligence” that will let the Pentagon carry out its mission.
Even if Assad can hide some forces and equipment, most of the regime’s infrastructure will remain vulnerable to attack, Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said in an e-mail.
“How is Assad going to hide massive infrastructure, like buildings or radar stations,” Bash said. “We never contemplated striking” chemical weapons themselves, “so moving those around doesn’t change our calculus.”
Making Assad concentrate on plans to withstand a U.S. attack also hurts his ability in the meantime to battle rebel forces seeking to topple the regime, he said.
The more Assad “has to focus on dispersing his command and control, the harder it will be for him to wage war on his own people,” Bash said.
Since Obama announced the U.S. intention to strike Syria, Assad’s forces have been seen moving troops from military positions into schools “so that if the U.S. were to strike they’d kill school children,” said Dan Layman, spokesman for Syrian Support Group, a Washington nonprofit organization that works as a liaison to the opposition’s Supreme Military Council. Those troop movements have led to reduced fighting in rural areas outside Damascus and Homs, Layman said in a phone interview.
There’s an “overall lull at the moment,” Layman said.
Fixed targets, which would remain viable over a long period of time, would have to include infrastructure such as rail links, retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair said in a phone interview.
“To have real military impact, the U.S. would be going after Assad’s military transportation links that allow him to import weapons and munitions from Russia and Iran,” said Blair, the former director of national intelligence said. “That would make a serious difference along with hitting military bases and airfields from which his forces operate.”
Instead, “if the U.S. only does a shot across the bow or slap-on-the-wrist type of military action, it will have little effect and will be accurately considered” by Assad and others “as a weak response,” Blair said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com