Pentagon ordered to expand Syria target list

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that President Bashar Assad's government has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is determined to put more emphasis on the "degrade" part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria -- to "deter and degrade" Mr. Assad's ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action Saturday to seek congressional approval.

For the first time, the administration is talking about using U.S. and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.

The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles -- risking a potential catastrophe -- but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried out attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said other targets would include equipment Syria uses to protect the chemicals -- air defenses, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons.

Mr. Obama's instructions come as most of those members of Congress even willing to consider voting in favor of a U.S. military response to Syria's chemical weapons use are insisting on strict limits on its duration and type of strikes, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.

Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront -- that to win the fight on Capitol Hill, they must accept restrictions on the military response, yet to make the strike meaningful, they must expand its scope.

"They are being pulled in two different directions," a senior foreign official said Thursday. "The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference."

Officials cautioned that the options for an increased U.S. strike would still be limited -- "think incremental increase, not exponential," said one official -- but intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.

In endorsing a strike Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made modifications to the resolution the White House proposed. Other versions are being circulated.

The latest is from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who proposes giving Mr. Assad 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin securing and ridding his nation of its weapons stockpiles.

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