It's up to the White House to decide whether to attack Syria in response to the regime of Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against its own people. But it will be up to U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, to come up with plans to meet President Barack Obama's objectives and figure out what could possibly go wrong.
“They'll be busy,” said William Fallon, a retired admiral who commanded Centcom from March 2007 to March 2008. “MacDill will play a key role. They have responsibilities for all military activities going on.”
President Obama is considering military action against Syria after the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of Syrians last week.
Centcom officials declined comment for this story, but last week, shortly before news broke about the attack, Centcom commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III addressed the issue of possible roles the command might play in Syria nearly a year after President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a “red line.”
Syria “represents the most challenging and complex situation I've seen in my 38-year military career,” Austin said during an interview with the Tribune. “And, it's complex, in part, because it's a civil war, not based on ideology, but rather based on ethno-sectarian issues. And, the situation is further compounded by proxy activity and the possible use of chemical weapons. As such, there is no singular military solution to the problem. It's going to require a diplomatic or political solution, and that's being worked hard by folks in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Our job, my job — is to make sure we have a range of military options available to support whatever policy decisions are made by our civilian leadership. And, we are prepared...”
Other commands at MacDill could also play a role. That's because in addition to housing Centcom, which oversees military actions in the region, the base is also home to U.S. Special Operations Command, which is responsible for providing special operations forces based on the Centcom commander's requirements, Special Operations Command Central, which oversees special operations forces missions there, and two Air Force refueling wings that could be called on to provide jet fuel to any aircraft that would be used.
Officials from Socom, Soccent, the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing also declined comment about specifics of any potential operations in Syria.
Whatever happens all starts with “what does the national command authority want to achieve,” said Fallon.
“When I was (at Centcom), we would look at some options and a range of things to achieve,” said Fallon. “We ask the higher authority, 'what would you like to see as a desired end state?'”
Planners at Centcom “are looking at a range of targets and outcomes that might be able to be achieved,” said Fallon, who retired after leaving Centcom and spoke only in general terms of the types of activities likely taking place at the command right now.
Centcom “always has plans of one kind or another long before anything happens,” said Fallon. “What would we do if? That planning is always going on. They tend to focus on what have you done in the past and here is some new information, some new intelligence.”
Centcom “will play a huge role,” said Jon Bayless, a retired Navy rear admiral now living in the Tampa area.
The command, he said, “likely put teams together, probably weeks ago, and had some contingencies in the can that they revisited and reviewed.”
Among the most likely options being considered by the White House is a limited action involving “standoff” weapons like cruise missiles, fired by surface ships and submarines. Both the 5th Fleet, which is under the command of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and based in the Arabian Sea and the 6th Fleet, under command of U.S. Naval Forces European Command and based in the Mediterranean, have constant communications with planners at Centcom, said Bayless.
The Air Force could possibly be involved too, using either bombers or fighter aircraft firing standoff missiles from outside Syrian airspace, reducing the risk from Syria's robust anti-aircraft system.
Either of those actions would require aerial refueling, which could involve aircraft from MacDill. The 6th Air Mobility Wing has 16 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets. During the aerial campaign over Libya, a crew from MacDill was awarded the prestigious “General James H. Doolittle” trophy for its efforts above the Libyan skies during Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector in 2011.
Some reports have stated that Syrian rebel forces trained in part by U.S. special operations forces are already operating in Syria. For actions in Syria and the rest of the Centcom region outside of Afghanistan, MacDill-headquartered Soccent serves as the senior special operations forces advisor to Gen. Austin. In the unlikely event that Obama calls for U.S. special operations forces on the ground, Socom would be responsible for providing those forces depending on Austin's requirements.
The goal of any military action would be to “take something away from Assad to send a message,” said Bayless, who retired in October of 2009 and now serves as vice president of business development for Clearwater defense contractor Tandel Systems Inc. “How do you do that? You take away his capabilities. You destroy his command and control, or take away his air force, or something of that nature.”
Fallon, who said that a “strike for a strike's sake is not very prudent planning,” took issue with the White House over how widely the options are being discussed publicly.
“What I cannot stand is all the chatter,” said Fallon. “What are they doing talking about this? There are too many loose lips.”
The problem, said Fallon, is not tipping off Assad.
“It puts you in a position of being backed into doing something,” said Fallon. “Everyone expects you to do something, then if you don't, they ask what was this all about?”
Discussions over an attack on Syria come at a time when Congress is in recess. Local members of key defense-related committees contacted by the Tribune offered mixed feelings on attacking Syria, breaking down by party line.
“I don't want the United States to get into another war in that part of the world,” said Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee.
Young, a Republican from Indian Shores, said the potential blowback from military action against Syria could be severe.
“Iran could get involved,” he said.
Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican whose district includes parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Sarasota counties, has been briefed several times on Syria as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, but not since news broke about the latest allegations of chemical attacks by Assad,
“I think that if the President wants to engage in Syria, first he should probably explain to the American people what the national interest is in a Sunni-Shia civil war and why it is important to expend not only dollars on possible air strikes, but potentially put men and women in harm's way,” said Rooney. “I understand the moral obligations against a dictator using chemical weapons, but at the same time, rebel factions have been infiltrated by al-Qaida.”
Before Congress broke for recess, the House Intelligence committee was briefed about who could have access to Syrian weapons of mass destruction. The Assad regime “has control, but not absolute control” over those weapons. Rogue elements of the Assad regime, as well as outside groups like the Iranian Qods Force, may also have access, said Rooney.
Rep. Richard Nugent, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district includes Hernando and Pasco counties, wondered why Obama was acting now, more than two years into the conflict. He is also calling for congressional approval of any action in Syria.
“There is no right side to this thing,” said Nugent, also briefed on Syria in his committee. “At the end of the day, we should not be involved in that conflict.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he is in support of military action against Syria.
Nelson declined to specify what that would look like, saying that it was up to the White House,
“The way Sen. Nelson sees it, taking military action with NATO and our allies is appropriate at this point,” said spokesman Dan McLaughlin. “The use of weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated.”