US military updates list of potential targets in Syria as pressure mounts on Obama

Updated list includes mobile targets that would disrupt Assad's ability to conduct chemical weapons attacks; cruise missile attacks from sea being considered; US Navy to expand presence in Mediterranean, official says.

US destroyer launches cruise missile 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US destroyer launches cruise missile 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Pentagon has updated its list of potential targets in Syria should US President Barack Obama decide to intervene militarily in the country, CNN reported on Friday, citing a US Defense Department official.
The report came as pressure is mounting on Obama to take action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the wake of allegations that he killed more than 1,000 people in chemical weapons attacks on Wednesday.
The US defense official told CNN that target lists for air strikes in Syria had been updated, and plans for using cruise missiles capable of targeting Syria without entering the country's airspace had also been included.
The official stated that the US had made no decision to act in Syria, but rather the targets were updated "to give the president a current and comprehensive range of choices."
Assad's army continues to move forces and equipment making flexible planning a necessity, the official told CNN.
The updated list includes mobile targets that would disrupt Assad's ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks.
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Obama and his national security team had a four hour Oval Office meeting on military options Friday, focusing on cruise missile targets, but no decisions were taken.
A defense official said Friday that the US Navy will expand its presence in the Mediterranean with a fourth cruise-missile armed warship because of the escalating civil war in Syria.
The USS Mahan had finished its deployment and was due to head back to its home base in Norfolk, Virginia, but the commander of the US Sixth Fleet has decided to keep the ship in the region, the defense official said.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, stressed that the Navy had received no orders to prepare for any military operations regarding Syria.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that "the Defense Department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies. And that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets to be able to carry out different options - whatever options the president might choose."
Congressman Engel urges air strikes in Syria
The top Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee urged Obama on Friday to order air strikes against Assad's government after the apparent chemical attacks.
Representative Eliot Engel cited Obama's statement that the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces would cross a "red line" and cause the United States to act to halt such violations of international law.
"If we, in concert with our allies, do not respond to Assad's murderous uses of weapons of mass destruction, malevolent countries and bad actors around the world will see a green light where one was never intended," Engel wrote in a letter to Obama and obtained by Reuters.
Syria denies being responsible and has in the past accused rebels of using gas. However, US and allied intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that Syrian government forces indeed used chemical weapons in Wednesday's attacks and that the act likely had high-level approval from Assad's government, according to US and European security sources.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment is preliminary and, at this stage, they are still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or longer to gather.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to Engel this week saying the United States had the capability to conduct targeted air strikes in Syria to destroy runways, fuel depots and helicopters.
"And, we can do this with no boots on the ground, from stand-off distances," Engel wrote in his letter to Obama. "I know that your Administration is wrestling with these very complex issues, but I believe that we, as Americans, have a moral obligation to step in without delay and stop the slaughter."
Engel has been a strong advocate for more aggressive US military intervention in Syria, as have several other members of Congress, including such influential foreign policy voices as Republican Senator John McCain.
But there remains deep opposition and skepticism among some members of the House and Senate - as well as the Obama administration - about any rush to military intervention in Syria.
Obama called the deaths of hundreds of Syrians in the apparent chemical weapons attack a "big event of grave concern," but stressed on Friday he was in no hurry to embroil Americans in a costly new war.
The United States is providing non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition, but has been slow to make good on promises to deliver weapons to moderates.
In his letter to Engel this week, Dempsey warned of the complexity of choosing sides in Syria and stressed the US intervention would not extinguish the religious, tribal and ethnic tensions fueling the conflict.