As Congress Debates, Military Prepares for Syria Strike

American warships steam into the Red Sea and Mediterranean in anticipation of military strikes.

Helicopters conduct operations over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on deployment in the Persian Gulf, August 13
Helicopters conduct operations over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on deployment in the Persian Gulf, August 13 (USN/George J. Penney)

As American president Barack Obama awaits approval from Congress to organize a punitive expedition against Syria, his military seems virtually on standby to initiate hostilities.

Two warships have joined the four that were deployed off Syria’s coast in the Eastern Mediterranean before the president announced his intention to strike Syria in response to its regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons two weeks ago. Five are guided-missile destroyers, capable of attacking Syrian government and military targets with cruise missiles. The amphibious assault ship USS San Antonio docked in Israel’s Haifa on Wednesday for what its captain described as a “well deserved break for sailors and Marines.” The ship, carrying helicopters, could be called upon to serve as a base for special operations and evacuations.

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its battle group, including three guided-missile destroyers and the cruiser USS Princeton, is headed into the Red sea. The USS Harry S. Truman carrier is deployed nearby in the Persian Gulf region. Both ships carry up to ninety aircraft, mainly F/A-18F Super Hornets, as well as helicopters. The United States have also stationed a squadron of F-16 fighter jets in Jordan, neighboring Syria.

While aircraft may not be used to directly attack Syria, Robert Beckhusen writes at the Swiss security blog Offiziere that some are still likely to be involved. Submarines and warships “rely on command and control planes to help beam communications around the world,” he points out. An E-4 communications plane was recently spotted at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, one of the four in service, that can be used to coordinate strikes. A U-2 spy plane was also moved to a NATO base on Crete while a WC-135C, “which is used to sniff for chemical attacks,” was spotted refueling near Malta last month.

Likely targets include air bases to prevent the regime from deploying chemical agents from the air. Although General Martin Dempsey, America’s top military officer, claims that only a tenth of fatalities in the civil war, now in its third year, has been caused by bombs and rockets dropped from President Bashar Assad’s aircraft, Michael Weiss points out in Foreign Affairs magazine that the regime’s airports are of strategic significance. “Russian and Iranian military and commercial planes arrive daily to offload weapons, ammunition and personnel,” he writes.

Because all of Syria’s borders — save the one with Lebanon — are either controlled by the rebels (Turkey, Jordan) or are easily monitored by them (Iraq), land transports of equipment and personnel are growing less frequent. But the shipments that make it to Damascus International Airport and Mezzeh Air Base, which is […] located southwest of the capital, are not.

Indeed, keeping the Mezzeh facility safe may have been why regime used poison gas in the area two weeks ago when hundreds of civilians were allegedly killed.

Of the 27 air bases in Syria that are capable of supporting military operations, just six are believed to be still in full use. The others were either taken by the opposition or are fiercely contested. Taking them out might not require allied bomber planes to enter Syria’s airspace which would expose them to the country’s air defenses.

Eliminating chemical weapons sites from the air — Syria is widely believed to have the Middle East’s largest stockpile of such weapons — would be riskier. “A conventional explosion could easily release and disperse the toxic chemicals over a wide area,” warns Wikistrat analyst Richard Weitz in World Politics Review. “The area would be dangerously polluted until decontaminated by specially trained troops which are in limited supply and generally require a secure environment to work.”

A safer option would be deploying ground forces to burn the chemicals at extremely high temperatures in special processing units but this Obama has all but ruled out.

Secretary of State John Kerry, however, suggested during a Senate hearing on Tuesday that “in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands” of extremists, “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the United States to secure our country.” But he later cautioned, “All I did was raise a hypothetical question” and insisted, “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”