An image grab taken from a video shows an opposition fighter holding a rocket propelled grenade as his fellow comrades take cover from an attack by regime forces on Aug. 26. The U.S. is in the final stages of preparation for missile strikes on Syria and many defense officials expect an operation will involve Navy ships launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets. (AFP via Getty Images)
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The U.S. military is in the final stages of preparation for missile strikes on Syria, but experts say any military operations there will likely be short-lived and have minimal impact on the Pentagon’s plans for the future.
Top U.S. officials have been clear, almost emphatic, that any air strikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are not intended to alter the balance of power in the two-year-old Syrian civil war. The Pentagon’s top brass fears that massive military strikes will empower the Islamic extremist groups who are now a key pillar of the Syrian rebel forces and are linked to the same insurgent groups that were killing U.S. troops in nearby Iraq just a few years ago.
Instead, the main U.S. goal is to mete out some punishment for the Syrian dictator for using chemical weapons against civilians. In effect, it’s backing up President Obama’s remark in August 2012 that using chemical weapons was a “red line” that would “change my equation” about military involvement in Syria.
For now the military is standing by for a final order from the White House, and many defense officials expect an operation that will involve Navy ships launching dozens of Tomahawk missiles at Syrian targets. That could start this weekend or early next week, according to several unofficial reports.
“A limited air campaign to achieve some limited ends — I think that is where we may be headed,” said Mark Gunzinger, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.
There are currently four Navy destroyers off the coast of Syria: the Gravely, the Mahan, the Barry and the Ramage, all Norfolk-based ships. That’s an increase from the typical force level of two destroyers deployed to that area. Combined they are probably loaded with about 200 Tomahawk missiles.
There are about 2,200 Marines aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, which is currently in the U.S. Central Command region but currently not operating along the Syrian coast.
There are about 1,000 U.S. troops in Jordan, including a detachment of F-16 fighter jets and troops who specialize in chemical weapons.
Air Force fighter jets based in Europe and the Middle East could reach Syrian targets, but experts say Syria’s robust air defense capabilities make manned sorties into Syrian air space unlikely due to the risk of U.S. casualties.
A strike on Syria appears imminent despite deep reluctance from the White House, warnings from the Pentagon’s top brass that military intervention might be a bad idea, and an American public that has almost no interest in seeing the U.S. get drawn into another Middle East conflict.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that only 9 percent of Americans support intervention in the Syrian conflict, while about 60 percent explicitly oppose it.
Both Obama and the Pentagon brass appear to agree that the strikes should be limited. Nevertheless, any strike would signal a new level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, which so far has included only small-scale material support for the rebels.
“This could be the beginning of a slippery slope toward deeper U.S. involvement,” said Nora Bensahel, a defense expert at the Center for New American Security.
Experts can conjure up a range of potential problems.
For example: What will Obama do if, soon after U.S. air strikes, the Syrian military once again uses chemical weapons?
How would Obama react if the Syrian regime collapses into a chaotic failed state or one controlled by Islamic extremists?
And looming over the entire situation are long-standing concerns about Iran. Some high-ranking Iranian officials have begun to threaten that a U.S. attack in Syria would prompt Iran to strike neighboring Israel.
Yet many experts say those scenarios are unlikely.
“The real question is, ‘What is as Assad’s reaction? I think Assad would be crazy to try and take escalatory action here. He’s having enough trouble managing the rebels; I don’t think he really wants to draw the world’s most powerful military into the conflict,” said Mieke Eoyang, a defense expert with Third Way, a think tank in Washington.
If the air strikes are limited and brought to a prompt conclusion — as many top U.S. officials hope — they are likely to fade from the public limelight and to have little impact on the military’s budget battles and strategic reviews that are underway this fall.
“I don’t see this having a lasting impact,” Eoyang said. “I think this is a one-off strike, probably paid for out of existing funds for the Pentagon.”
Mounting major military operations against Syria would be an abrupt reminder that the Pentagon will continue to face problems in the Middle East regardless of the planned “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region.
Yet in some ways, the operation under discussion tracks with the priorities the Pentagon has outlined in recent years — a fundamental shift from boots-on-the-ground missions to using stand-off capabilities.
“This is all about the use of air and naval power and perhaps some special operations forces as well,” Gunzinger said.
“To conduct a limited campaign against a state that is armed with some pretty formidable air defenses ... this might be the wave of the future,” he said.
Many experts agree that the Syrian operations are unlikely to affect the budget battles in Washington and the spending caps known as sequestration that have forced the Defense Department to cancel training programs, impose civilian furloughs and debate priorities for future weapons modernization programs.
“If it is as limited as it looks, then Syria will sort of fall off the attention radar screen,” Bensahel said.
“Attention will go back to the budget ceiling and defense spending. I don’t think it would have any sort of immediate impact on the budget negotiations,” she said.
“The debate about sequestration will continue to exist.”