WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials said Saturday that U.S. intelligence capabilities allow the military to track any movement of Syrian targets, which means a missile attack against Syria would be effective despite President Obama's decision to delay a strike until Congress gives its approval.
Obama said Saturday that waiting would not weaken the U.S. ability to strike Syria if he gives the order. He said Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people deserves a military response.
If Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces try to hide its military assets, U.S. intelligence capabilities can find them, defense officials told USA TODAY. The U.S. military will also likely target buildings.
The United States has powerful signal intelligence capabilities, with the use of drones and satellites, and has the ability to monitor communications.
"Our intelligence and targeting capabilities offer the president and the nation tremendous advantages," said a defense official who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak about a potential strike.
Moreover, the official pointed out, buildings that could be hit by missiles do not move.
However, the extra time will let Assad move weapons, such as artillery or rocket launchers, into populated areas and use civilians as human shields, said Charles Wald, a retired Air Force general who led the planning of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban.
"It's almost immoral to give the enemy more time to prepare," Wald said.
Moving weapons from "a remote air base to a building near a school ... does change the military calculations," said Colin Kahl, an associate professor at Georgetown University and former Pentagon official. "But that was happening already," he said.
A delay may add some complexity to the mission, said a second defense official speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason. But the delay does not translate into protection for Syria's military assets. U.S. intelligence and targeting technologies provide "tremendous advantages," the official said, adding that if the Syrian regime thinks it will gain by a delay, it would be sorely mistaken.
Obama said Saturday that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."
The Navy has positioned five destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, within cruise missile striking distance of Syria. The ships can each carry up to 90 cruise missiles, though typically they carry less in order to make room for other weapons and personnel. A Marine troop-carrying ship has joined them.
U.S. military officials and analysts have said any attack will be aimed at military and intelligence targets, particularly units linked to the Aug. 21 chemical attack. It will not be designed to remove the Assad regime.
"We continue to refine our targeting based on the most recent intelligence, and the chairman assured the president that we would have appropriate targeting options ready when he called for them," said Air Force Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for Dempsey.