Last updated on: August 30, 2013 2:58 PM
WASHINGTON — Should the United States decide to go ahead with military action against the Syrian government for the suspected use of chemical weapons, military planners will have a range of air, naval and ground assets at their disposal.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the August 21 attacks in several rebel-held Damascus suburbs and blamed the killings of hundreds of civilians in those areas on rebels. But top U.S. officials have spoken publicly of the need for accountability, and U.S. President Barack Obama has said a targeted strike could "send a shot across the bow," and help ensure chemical weapons are not again used against innocent civilians.
The U.S. military has five Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the Mediterranean, in the 6th Fleet Area of Responsibility. At least two are already in the eastern Mediterranean, close to the Syrian coast.
Alexandria, Virginia-based security analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.Org says each destroyer has the capacity to hold almost 100 Tomahawk missiles and likely carries at least dozens of the weapons.
U.S. manufacturer Raytheon says the missile can "circle for hours, shift course instantly on command, and beam a picture of its target to controllers halfway around the world."
Other U.S. naval assets in the Middle East include two aircraft carriers: the USS Harry S. Truman in the Red Sea and the USS Nimitz in the North Arabian Sea.
The United States could send additional warplanes into Syria from air bases that it shares with allies in Europe and the Gulf.
Regional air bases
Turkey is home to one of the nearest air bases to Syria: Incirlik. Turkish officials have said previously Ankara would be ready to take part in any international action against Assad and has put its armed forces on alert.
While key U.S. ally Britain now says it will not take part in any military strike, U.S. ally and NATO member France is still calling for a military response. U.S. warplanes in Western Europe also could be positioned closer to the region by moving to bases in Italy.
Deploying U.S. fighter jets from Gulf air bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman would be trickier. Gulf states including Saudi Arabia oppose Assad, but any warplanes heading from their territory toward Syria would need permission to fly over one of three other Arab states.
In an interview with the French news agency (AFP), a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraq will "not agree to any use of our airspace... to attack any neighboring country."
The other nations, Egypt and Jordan, have not said whether they would allow over-flights of their territory as part of any military action against the Syrian government. The Washington embassies of the two states did not respond to a VOA request for comment, but their governments have aligned themselves with opponents of President Assad.
Still, getting help from other countries in the region may be tricky. This week the Arab League condemned the alleged chemical weapons attack, blaming the Syrian government, but did not call for military action, instead demanding those responsible be put on trial.
Additionally, Pike said long flight paths from the Gulf to Syria also could require airborne refueling for U.S. warplanes. He said it would be "more straightforward" for the United States to use aircraft in Turkey or move its two aircraft carriers from nearby waters into the Mediterranean.
The U.S. military also has hundreds of personnel in Jordan, based at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center northeast of Amman.
They include personnel from the U.S. Central Command and members of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division who were sent to the kingdom earlier this year to help Jordanian troops respond to any attacks from Syria or a spillover of chemical weapons.
In addition to troops, the U.S. military sent Patriot air defense missiles and F16 fighters to Jordan for a military exercise in June, and kept them there when it was over.
Pike said any U.S. military operation using these forces likely would have one of two main objectives: restoring U.S. deterrence against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, or taking those weapons out of the hands of Syria's combatants.
"What Obama has to do to restore deterrence is inflict so much pain on the Assad regime that it will refrain from using chemical weapons again," he said.
He said it appears the Obama administration favors carrying out a small-scale strike using missiles rather than warplanes. Such a strike could target government or security buildings or even the Syrian air force.
But Pike said justifying attacks on such targets could be challenging for the United States.
"Inevitably people will say why did you blow that up? You could blow up Assad's palaces, and people will say that looks too much like assassination. You could hit his security buildings and air force, but people would ask what they have to do with chemical weapons."
Alternatively, the United States could try to destroy or secure Syria's suspected chemical weapon stockpiles to ensure they cannot be used in the conflict, two options that also entail major risks.
Pike said destroying the stockpiles with air or missile strikes risks dispersing poisonous gasses and harming the population. "I don't think the Obama administration has much appetite for that," said Pike.
"But securing the stockpiles probably would require thousands of troops and lead to Americans getting killed," he said.