Delayed US strikes will still hurt Syria

Smoke rises as seen from the Aleppo district of Salaheddine on Sept 4, 2013.

It would hardly be a surprise to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad or his military if American missiles start hitting Syria soon.

With weeks to prepare for an attack, Mr Assad might benefit in some ways from the delay in any strike caused by United States President Barack Obama's decision to seek approval from a divided US Congress.

But US officials and defence experts said Mr Assad's forces cannot take enough targets out of reach to blunt the US military mission.

Fixed targets, for example, cannot be protected, no matter how much time elapses.

"A building can't be moved or hidden," a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other fixed targets include airfields, but not any storage facilities with chemical weapons in them.

Defence analyst Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said that, if successful, hitting fixed targets would eliminate key assets to Mr Assad that "can't be replaced easily, like command-and-control facilities (and) major headquarters".

"These are lasting targets," he said.

It is still unclear when any US attack on Syria will happen, but Mr Assad already has had ample time to try to get ready.

US officials have been openly discussing the possibility of hitting Syria since shortly after the Aug 21 chemical-weapons attack near Damascus. Even if Congress approves military action, a final vote would be unlikely before the middle of next week.

A second US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the delay added "complexities" to the planning efforts.

Mr Assad has already moved some military equipment and personnel to civilian areas and put soldiers, whose loyalty to him is in doubt, in military sites as human shields against any Western strikes, the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition has said.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged publicly to Congress that Mr Obama has ordered the military to develop plans that keep a lid on collateral damage - civilian deaths and damage to civilian infrastructure.

Gen Dempsey told lawmakers on Wednesday: "Though they are in fact moving resources around - and, in some cases, placing prisoners and others in places that they believe we might target - at this point, our intelligence is keeping up with that movement."

myp@sph.com.sg

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