The US began refining its military options for possible strikes in Syria, and initiated diplomatic efforts to craft an international response to allegations that Syria's government killed over 1,100 civilians with chemical weapons, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
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According to the report, officers at the Pentagon are updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations 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.
US 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 Assad if there is conclusive evidence that the government was behind poison-gas attacks on Wednesday, the report said.
US 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.
"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. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would cross a key US "red line" and possibly trigger a US response.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is sharply divided over how to respond to Wednesday's gas attack.
Senior officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies met for three and a half hours at the White House on Thursday to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria.
The meeting broke up without any decision, according to senior officials, amid signs of a deepening division between those who advocate sending Assad a harsh message and those who argue that military action now would be reckless and ill timed.
Among the options discussed, officials said, was a cruise missile strike, which would probably involve Tomahawks launched from a ship in the Mediterranean Sea, where the United States has two destroyers deployed, it was reported.
The Pentagon also has combat aircraft in the Middle East and in Europe that could be used in an air campaign against Syria.
The targets could include missile or artillery batteries that launch chemical munitions or nerve gas, as well as communications and support facilities. Symbols of the Assad government’s power — headquarters and government offices — also could be among the proposed targets, officials said.
On Thursday, France and Britain called for the use of force against Syria should allegations of the use of chemical weapons prove true. "There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community, but there is no question of sending troops on the ground," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French television network BFM.
Britain said its first priority was to verify the facts surrounding a reported chemical weapons attack in Syria, but said it could not rule out any option to end the bloodshed there.
"We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed," a spokesman from the British Foreign Office told Reuters. "However, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have said many times we cannot rule out any option ... that might save innocent lives in Syria."
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