WASHINGTON – A U.S. attack on Syria is likely to begin at night with fiery explosions at military installations, artillery batteries and headquarters near the capital, Damascus, and other government strongholds around the country, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The strikes, involving dozens of cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships, attack submarines and possibly warplanes, would probably last up to three days. The Obama administration is seeking to punish President Bashar Assad’s government for its alleged use of chemical weapons while avoiding a messy intervention in the country’s civil war.
U.S. planners expect Syria to activate its sizable air defense system once the attack commences, firing anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles into the night sky in an effort to shoot down the low-flying Tomahawk missiles whizzing over buildings and mountains at more than 500 mph. Most of the weapons are likely to get through, though, because the U.S. will be jamming Syrian radars, analysts say.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States had concluded the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack last week in Damascus suburbs.
He insisted he has not decided whether to authorize an attack. But Obama said the United States has a clear interest in responding to use of chemical weapons to deter further use and to keep them from terrorists.
“Then there is a possibility in which chemical weapons … could be directed at us,” Obama said on PBS’ “NewsHour.” “We want to make sure that that does not happen.”
If Obama decides he wants more targets destroyed, some analysts say, the Pentagon may also employ warplanes, which can fire additional cruise missiles and other munitions from outside Syrian airspace. It could also send stealth bombers over Syria to destroy an important target while seeking to avoid civilian casualties.
The relatively brief air campaign under consideration is unlikely to inflict major damage on Assad’s considerable conventional forces, and it would not seek to destroy dozens of widely dispersed sites where chemical weapons are stored, out of concern that doing so could release poisons or leave the sites open to looting.
Instead, planners at the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and U.S. Central Command, which would oversee the attack, have presented the White House with a target list that includes some of the Assad government’s most loyal military units, including those believed to have been involved in the Aug. 21 suspected chemical attack that is reported to have killed hundreds, one official said.
“They want to send a signal that those units are being targeted as much as possible because of their specific involvement” in the chemical attack, said one military official.
But planners are also worried that, as administration officials have signaled an attack is imminent in recent days, the Syrian military has begun dispersing its forces to protect them, raising the likelihood that the bombardment could hit facilities and installations emptied of troops and equipment, one official said.
Along with units suspected of involvement in chemical attacks, the strikes are expected to target artillery units that can fire munitions carrying chemical agents or conventional explosives, as well command facilities and bunkers, a military officer briefed on the planning said.
Four U.S. guided-missile destroyers – the Ramage, the Gravely, the Barry and the Mahan – are now in the eastern Mediterranean, each carrying up to 90 cruise missiles. In practice, said Christopher Harmer, a retiree Navy officer and former operational planner in the Middle East, most are probably carrying about 45 missiles. They carry a relatively small, 1,000-pound warhead.
With U.S. forces likely to stay well outside Syria, the Assad government’s ability to strike back is severely limited, according to current and former U.S. officials. Anti-aircraft fire might succeed in hitting some of the cruise missiles, but Syria’s air defenses are likely to be overwhelmed. Cruise missiles can be programmed to take routes that avoid air defense sites.