Not Yet! U.S. Still Determining Syria Attack Objectives

Obama administration officials are still trying to decide what objective they want to achieve with an attack on Syria, fearing additional chemical weapons use. By Stephanie Gaskell

One week since Syria is believed to have used chemical weapons against its civilian population, killing hundreds of women and children, Obama administration officials say they are still at the point of determining what the U.S. hopes to achieve with a punitive military strike before proceeding with any action.

As global leaders demand that Syria face consequences for crossing a humanitarian red line with last week’s massive chemical weapons attack, senior administration officials said on Wednesday that more decisions had to be made before a strike would occur. Among their top concerns is that Syrian President Bashir al-Assad would again deploy chemical weapons, as well as how a U.S.-led attack could affect neighboring U.S. allies in Turkey and Jordan.

With those fears in mind, Obama administration officials appear to be continuing on their established deliberative pace, planning to make a case to the world with definitive intelligence that Syria was behind last week’s attack, determining an objective for a retaliatory military strike, and finding additional willing participants beyond Britain and France.

“If there is action taken, it must be clearly defined what the objective is and why,” said a senior administration official. The official indicated the U.S. government would not commence military strikes against Syria while these factors remained unsettled.

“If any action is taken, it will not be taken until all of these pieces are in place,” the official said. “The legal issues, the international piece, the consequences thought through, the facts and everything that needs to be tied together. If any action is taken, this has to be thought through very carefully.”

The administration is worried that the consequences of a U.S.-led strike could prove deadly for thousands, if more chemical weapons are used in its wake.

“There’s a possibility that the Syrian government would use chemical weapons again, and I don’t think you can discount that,” said the senior administration official. “You’ve got to remember, this is a government, a regime, essentially a dictatorship that is playing for its survival, and when you’ve got a situation like that then these people use any means they can to survive.”

While Washington guesses just how extensive a U.S.-led strike would be, one thing is clear: the Obama administration is not focused on a short operation. “The options are not limited just to one day,” said the senior administration official, adding, “We’ve not added any new stationary units anywhere. We have repositioned different assets in the Mediterranean, and I would say that any military action would not be unilateral. It would include international partners.”

[Click for Defense One’s complete coverage of Syria.]

U.S. officials said they are not depending on NATO or the United Nations to back any military strike against Syria. “If action is taken, it probably won’t be pursued through the U.N. or NATO,” a senior U.S. official told Defense One. “These aren’t the only ways to undertake such action and any response would be conducted pursuant to the law.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been speaking to his counterparts in several countries, including Britain and France. On Wednesday, he spoke to German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere. “They discussed the need for the international community to consider responses to this tragic development in Syria and noted that the use of chemical weapons violates the core tenets of international law,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said. 

On Wednesday, however, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would seek U.N. approval for a military strike and has drafted a resolution to present to the Security Council in New York. “We’ve always said we want the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that,” Cameron posted on Twitter.

U.S. officials have said they do not intend to cause a “regime change” with military strikes,  but they also said Assad cannot stay in power. “I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change. They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. “We are also very much engaged in an effort to support the opposition in its struggle with the Assad regime as the Assad regime continues to try to massacre its own people in an effort to maintain power.  And it is our firm conviction that Syria’s future cannot include Assad in power.”

The New York Times reported that administration officials are weighing specific responses to “deter and degrade” Syria’s ability for further chemical weapons attacks. But striking chemical stockpiles alone is highly risky as it could spread deadly agents. The administration could quickly make its case to strike other military targets, including delivery mechanisms like rockets and aircraft, or communications and command and control centers. Those strikes may not be intended to cause Assad’s downfall, but surely will help tilt the balance of the war in the direction of rebels fighting on the ground.

The U.S. has abandoned trying to get a NATO imprimatur, however, and Arab countries are keeping their distance. The Arab League issued a statement condemning Syria without committing to joining in military action, but privately, the senior official said the U.S. is not giving up on some of them. “We are talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike.”

A second senior administration official said the State Department was still actively seeking Arab partners, but would not name which ones.

Kevin Baron contributed to this report.

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