The U.S. began refining its military options for possible strikes in Syria, officials said, and initiated diplomatic efforts to craft an international response to allegations that Syria’s government killed over 1,100 civilians with chemical weapons. Officers at the Pentagon on Thursday were updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations, officials said, as part of contingency planning should President Barack Obama decide to act after what experts said may be the worst chemical-weapons massacre in more than two decades.
As the Pentagon worked on its options, Secretary of State John Kerry talked by telephone with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and the foreign-policy chiefs of Turkey, Jordan and the European Union, as well as with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, officials said. The regime gave no indication, however, that it would agree to Mr. Ban’s plea to let U.N. inspectors investigate the chemical-weapons allegations, as Syrian forces pressed on with an offensive in the towns around the capital where the attacks were alleged to have occurred.
U.S. officials who described the military options being revised at the Pentagon stressed that their purpose wouldn’t be to topple the regime, but to punish Mr. Assad if there is conclusive evidence that the government was behind poison-gas attacks on Wednesday. Making its options known could constitute a U.S. warning to Mr. Assad and his backers. It was unclear if Mr. Obama would be prepared to use the options; he has resisted getting entangled militarily in the conflict since the start.
Washington believes the Assad regime has carried out a series of chemical-weapons attacks on a small scale in recent months, but the U.S. is still collecting and analyzing evidence about what transpired Wednesday, officials said. “Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond,” said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. Mr. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad would cross a key U.S. “red line” and possibly trigger a U.S. response.
U.S. military options include potential strikes on “regime targets,” including Syrian government functions crucial to its war effort. In addition, options include strikes on Syrian military “delivery capabilities and systems” that are either used directly in attacks with poison gas or to facilitate them, from command-and-control facilities to front-line artillery batteries, officials said. The update was needed because Mr. Assad’s forces are moving around daily, said a senior U.S. official involved in the planning. “It’s dynamic,” the official said. Some of the options prepared for the White House were initially developed last year. Officials said they have been regularly updated by the Pentagon to keep them current.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has expressed to the White House and Congress his reservations about a concerted military intervention in Syria, citing the risks associated with proposals to create no-fly zones to protect rebel fighters and refugees. Such proposals would require a U.S. bombing campaign across the country, he has said. Syrian airspace is protected by advanced Russian-made air-defense systems that could shoot down American pilots. Gen. Dempsey pushed back in particular against proposals for the U.S. to intervene to help topple Mr. Assad, on the grounds that doing so could inadvertently help empower radical Islamist groups which dominate the opposition in many areas and could hold sway in a post-Assad Syria, the chairman has told lawmakers in letters and briefings
The far narrower options under review include airstrikes using so-called standoff weapons such as cruise missiles, and wouldn’t require the U.S. to send fighters into Syrian airspace, officials said. Israel has carried out a series of airstrikes in Syria this year using similar types of standoff weaponry to avoid sending manned aircraft into Syrian territory. Officials said these options are being fine-tuned by military officials so Mr. Obama can act in short order if a determination is made that Mr. Assad’s forces carried out chemical attacks and if Mr. Obama chooses to respond with force.
The developments come as disturbing reports of Wednesday’s poison-gas attack continued to trickle out. The international outcry led to calls for concerted action if allegations of large-scale chemical weapons use are confirmed. French Foreign Minister Fabius said the international community shouldn’t limit itself to public condemnations, but should respond with “a reaction of force.” Asked if he had in mind a military operation such as airstrikes, Mr. Fabius said: “I know what I mean.” “Everything will depend on the reaction of the U.S.,” said a senior French official, referring to the prospect of joint strikes by the U.S., France and Britain if intelligence agencies conclude chemical weapons were used on a large scale.
Western nations face the same dilemma that has dogged them since the start of civil war more than two years ago: whether they could intervene in Syria without clashing with its two powerful supporters, Russia and Iran. Mr. Fabius said that if Russia exercised its veto right to block decisive action by the U.N. Security Council, a decision to reprove the Assad regime should be reached in “another way.” The Russian and Iranian governments rejected the chemical-weapons claims Thursday. “If these allegations are true, it shows that the terrorist groups operating in Syria are capable of any crime,” said Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Fars News Agency reported. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t explicitly blame the Syrian regime, but did suggest Iran could be complicit. “It must be understood that Syria is the test field of Iran. Iran is watching closely how the world reacts to the criminal acts of Syria and Hezbollah,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged action to prevent further chemical strikes. “In Syria, all red lines were crossed, but the U.N. Security Council hasn’t been even able to come up with a resolution…This event is one that cannot be ignored anymore,” he said in news conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Berlin. The allegations, if verified, would represent the largest use of chemical weapons since the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attacked Kurdish and Iranian citizens with them in the late 1980s. Mr. Kerry on Thursday also spoke with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmad Jarba to express U.S. condolences to the Syrian people who have “been injured or are suffering from yesterday’s attack,” said Jennifer Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman.