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Military updates options for potential Syria strike, source says

Posted on: 12:57 pm, December 7, 2012, by , updated on: 01:06pm, December 7, 2012

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military has updated its plans for a potential strike against Syria after intelligence showed that the regime has filled aerial bombs with deadly sarin gas in at least two locations near military airfields, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

A senior U.S. official confirmed the details but declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information. There has been no movement to put the bombs on aircraft and no significant additional movement of chemical materials as far as the U.S. knows, he said.

The updated options are being refined daily. “The more information and intelligence you have, the more clarity you can bring to options you may decide to use,” the official said. “You would expect new information like this to drive an update of options.”

Potential options could include the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which was ordered to delay its homecoming and return to the Eastern Mediterranean when the Israel-Gaza conflict heated up.

Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group homecoming delayed; will return to Mediterranean

But there is much concern, the official said. It’s not clear if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is pulling back after President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued statements condemning the action, or what al-Assad’s future intentions may be.

The official also said the U.S. has all the firepower it needs in the region to conduct military action against Syria if Obama orders it. The U.S. maintains a fighter and bomber aircraft presence across the Middle East, including on board aircraft carriers. There are also warships with satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles that can be programmed to hit specific targets.

But experts have said bombing a chemical weapons site or an airfield where chemical bombs are located poses significant challenges, including the possibility of dispersal of chemical agents into a civilian population. A military option could involve dropping bombs on runways to keep airplanes from taking off.

Photos: The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group

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  • Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Jessica Duenas makes a door hook out of a steel rod aboard the USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class Casey Warnick moves ammunition during an offload aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class Casey Warnick moves ammunition during an offload aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Tiana Poelinetz, left, and Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Twyisha Buchanan, right, count and verify ammunition serial numbers during ammunition offload aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Gunner's Mate Seaman Jordan Jarvis cleans a M240-B machine gun during routine weapon maintenance aboard the USS Gunston Hall (U.S. Navy).

  • Quartermaster 3rd Class Cherise Davidson folds a preparation flag during routine maintenance and inventory of flags and pennants aboard the USS Gunston Hall (U.S. Navy).

  • Boatswains Mate 3rd Class Sean Lachance stands lookout watch aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • The USS Iwo Jima, foreground, the USS New York, back left, and the USS Gunston Hall, back right, offload ammunition to the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry, back middle. (U.S. Navy)

  • The USS Iwo Jima, foreground, the USS New York, back left, and the USS Gunston Hall, back right, offload ammunition to the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry, back middle. (U.S. Navy)

  • The USS Iwo Jima, foreground, the USS New York, back left, and the USS Gunston Hall, back right, offload ammunition to the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry, back middle. (U.S. Navy)

  • The USS Iwo Jima, foreground, the USS New York, back left, and the USS Gunston Hall, back right, offload ammunition to the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Matthew Perry, back middle. (U.S. Navy)

  • Cpl. Enzo Casas relays directional signals to a truck operator while repositioning equipment on flight deck aboard the USS Gunston Hall (U.S. Navy).

  • Hospital Corpsman 1st class Christian Hans, back right, gives a situational update to Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuels) 3rd Class Keith Moore, back left, aboard the USS New York during a force protection exercise. (U.S. Navy)

  • Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Carlos Gonzales sands down the surface of the ship's podium during a restoration project aboard the USS Gunston Hall. (U.S. Navy)

  • A Marine washes a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter aboard the USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • An MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter prepares to land aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Hannah Marihugh directs an MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter as it takes off from the USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • The USS Iwo Jima, middle, The USS Gunston Hall, right, and the USS New York, left, steam in formation while transiting across the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy)

  • The USS Iwo Jima, front, the USS Gunston Hall, middle, and the USS New York, back, steam in formation while transiting across the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy)

  • Seaman David Bulger prepares meals for the crew aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • Damage Controlman 2nd Class Aubry Rupp, left, adjust a Sailors’ firefighting ensemble during a fire drill aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Timothy J. Dods, middle, dons his flash hood during a fire drill aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Justin Gallman, left, assists Machinery Repairman Fireman Nathaneya Davis, right, with donning a self-contained breathing apparatus during a fire drill aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Damage Controlman 3rd Class Jeremy Kane dons a self-contained breathing apparatus during a main space fire drill aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Damage Controlman 3rd Class Zachary Brewer dons a fire fighting ensenble during a main space fire drill aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Sailors participate in anti-terrorism training drills aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (U.S. Navy).

  • Seaman Yeamin Yun stands lookout watch aboard the USS New York during a transit through the Strait of Gibraltar. (U.S. Navy)

  • Quarter Master 2nd Class Willie Ray Robinson plots a course aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York during a transit through the Strait of Gibraltar. (U.S. Navy)

  • Aviation Boatswain’s Mate [Handling] Airman Joshua Mutter sands a P-100 storage station aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Aviation Boatswain’s Mate [Handling] Airman Cara Barnett tests a nozzle on a P-25 fire fighting truck aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Jesse Lanuevo closes a ship’s self defense anti-missile system shaft aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Electrician’s Mate Fireman Dazmine Galentine tests a hydraulic transfer pump aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Damage Controlman 3rd Class Zachary A. Brewer, left, and Damage Controlman 3rd Class Jeremy Kane, right, don firefighting ensembles during a main space fire drill aboard the USS Iwo Jima (U.S. Navy).

  • Gunner's Mate Seaman Apprentice Joshua A. Larson cleans a MK240B machine gun aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Marines from 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit conduct fast roping drills from a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter aboard the USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter hovers above the flight deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS New York while conducting Marine fast-roping drills. (U.S. Navy)

  • A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter hovers above the flight deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS New York while conducting Marine fast-roping drills. (U.S. Navy)

  • A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter hovers above the flight deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS New York while conducting Marine fast-roping drills. (U.S. Navy)

  • A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter hovers above the flight deck of amphibious transport dock ship USS New York while conducting Marine fast-roping drills. (U.S. Navy)

  • CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters take off from amphibious transport dock ship USS New York in preparation for Marine fast-roping drills.(U.S. Navy)

  • Operations Specialist 3rd Class Austin Greening, back, directs Ship's Serviceman Seaman Jonathan Bennet, front, while shooting an MK 240B machine gun during a weapons qualification course aboard the USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Chief Gunner's Mate Dean Avellaneda sights in an M240B machine gun aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Electronic's Technician 3rd Class Michael Gygax fires an M240B machine gun aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Chief Gunner's Mate Dean Avellaneda, left, instructs Electronic's Technician 2nd Class Matthew Dimmick, right, on a M240B machine gun aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Cpl. Eric Timmreck replaces a component on a circuit board aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima. (U.S. Navy)

  • Boatswain's Mate Seaman John Carlson, left, fires an MK240B machine gun while Gunner's Mate 3rd Class William Lawson, middle, and Chief Gunner's Mate Dean Avellaneda, right, watch the target during a weapons qualification course aboard the USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Logistics Specialist Seaman Edward Murphy stands as the aft lookout aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • Logistics Specialist Seaman Edward Murphy stands as the aft lookout aboard the USS New York. (U.S. Navy)

  • The USS New York conducts a replenishment-at-sea with fleet replenishment oiler USNS Laramie. (U.S. Navy)

  • The multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima transits the Suez Canal. (U.S. Navy)

  • Photos: USS IWO JIMA

  • Photos: USS IWO JIMA

  • Photos: USS IWO JIMA

  • Photos: USS IWO JIMA

  • Photos: USS IWO JIMA

  • U.S. Sailors from the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21) Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team hooks a caving ladder to the ship's catwalk. New York is part of the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group with the embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zane Ecklund/Released)

  • U.S. Sailors from the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21) Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team hooks a caving ladder to the ship's catwalk. New York is part of the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group with the embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zane Ecklund/Released)

  • Damage Controlman Fireman Tyler S. Russell performs monthly maintenance checks on a P-100 firefighting pump in the hanger bay aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). Iwo Jima and embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jonathan L. Correa/Released)

  • Lt. Andrew J. Hoppe, ship’s dental officer, left, and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Rashad Thompson, right, perform a routine teeth cleaning in the dental ward aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). Iwo Jima and embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jonathan L. Correa/Released)

  • Airman Heather Prast applies touch-up paint to a bulkhead aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). Iwo Jima and embarked 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jonathan L. Correa/Released)

Also, communications sites could be struck to cut al-Assad’s links to his troops so orders for a chemical attack cannot be issued. But U.S. officials have said they are not certain how much control al-Assad has over his military, so there is no guarantee that commanders would not act on their own.

Interrupting communications links was part of the NATO bombing strategy in Libya, but there was a sense of much tighter regime control in that campaign

“What you have to do now is get the timely tactical intelligence to interrupt the decision cycle. That is, get between Assad and the individual who presses the button to launch that missile. That’s a very big ask in the intelligence community, very difficult. But now, that’s the position we’re really in,” CNN contributor Fran Townsend said on “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Thursday night.

The first intelligence on the chemical weapons movement in Syria came to light to the administration in the last week, when satellite imagery showed the movement of trucks and vehicles at sites where chemicals and weapons were stored. “We assume the aircraft are in close proximity to the munitions,” the official said.

The U.S. also believes the order to fill the bombs was issued and carried out through the Syrian military chain of command, but it’s not certain if al-Assad was directly involved. A different U.S. official told CNN several days ago that one assessment is the Syrian military may have done this to give al-Assad “options” to act as the regime came under continuing pressure from fighting near Damascus.

One reason the U.S. was certain of what it was seeing is that additional intelligence, including information provided by people, confirmed what was going on. The official would not say whether the human intelligence came from telephone intercepts, defectors or people inside Syria.

CNN contributed to this report

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