Concerns that Syrian President Bashar Assad has the time to hide his tools of war from a potential U.S. strike will not slow down the American military, a Department of Defense official said Thursday.
When asked if time was of the essence in Syria, Pentagon spokesman George Little said "We are the strongest military in the world. We are the most flexible and adaptable. And we have access to information that will enable us to take effective action at the appropriate time, if called upon."
Secretary of State John Kerry has led the charge on Capitol Hill to implore Congress to authorize a military strike against the Assad regime, following what he says is indisputable evidence it carried out a chemical attack on Aug. 21. President Barack Obama has affirmed that 1,429 people died in that attack, though other countries estimate the death toll is in the low hundreds.
Security experts and lawmakers have questioned whether Obama's decision to wait for support from Congress has allowed the Assad regime time to move his mobile weapons, such as airplanes, helicopters or anti-aircraft defenses. Some are concerned he may hide them among civilian populations making them more difficult for the U.S. to target without civilian casualties.
"No one in the Syrian regime should take solace from the deliberative process we're undertaking right now with the U.S. Congress," Little told reporters at the Pentagon. "We have the time to adjust, if necessary, given the conditions on the ground, given what the Syrian regime may or may not do, given movements and so forth."
"The Syrian regime does not get a strategic or tactical advantage from the time we, if called upon, will carry out a military mission effectively," he said.
Little added the military will achieve the objectives Kerry outlined before Congress on Tuesday while testifying alongside Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These include degrading and deterring forces loyal to Assad from conducting chemical weapons strikes.
Little declined to comment on questions about whether this would be considered an act of war. Administration officials and proponents of the strike claim their repeated insistence of "no boots on the ground" indicates that this will be different than the last 12 years of war in the Middle East that have drawn heavily from the U.S. military.
Senior officials have also shied away from referring to this strike as an act of war, which would require congressional approval. Obama has indicated he may continue with the strike even if he does not get the OK from Capitol Hill.
"This is not going to be a long, protracted, drawn-out conflict akin to Iraq or Afghanistan," said Little. "We're talking about a limited mission, limited in scope, limited in duration, and no boots on the ground."
The U.S. military has the ability to protect Assad stockpiles of chemical weapons from falling into the hands of insurgents without a ground campaign, he said. But Little couched that with Dempsey's warning to Congress on Wednesday: "We can never take the risk down to zero when it comes to military options."