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Reviewing potential Syria targets

The Pentagon and the intelligence community continue to refine the target list for any Syria strike, but one bull’s-eye certainly will be the Defense Ministry’s facilities in and around Jamraya, northwest of Damascus.

Target No. 1 could be the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). Established in the early 1970s, it is described as Syria’s equivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, where the first atomic bomb was developed.

The Obama intelligence assessment released Friday said, “Personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC — were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack.” It added that information about the preparations came from “streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” collected three days prior to the event.

The SSRC, though within the Defense Ministry, is directly subordinate to President Bashar al-Assad. Its director has a standing equal to that of a senior government minister. Three other Syrian entities involved in non-conventional weapons development report to the director — the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology, the Electronics Institute and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory.

In 2005, SSRC was described by then-President George W. Bush as “the Syrian government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the missiles to deliver them.” They include “biological and chemical weapons.”

The SSRC was put on the Treasury Department list requiring export and re-export licenses because it posed a risk of diverting items into programs related to weapons of mass destruction. Two years later, the other three entities went on the same list.

Most SSRC employees are prohibited from speaking with foreign groups or individuals. U.S. intelligence officials believe that chemical and other weapons are stored in underground bunkers in the area where the SSRC is located, on a hillside behind Mount Qassioun.

The Jamraya area where the SSRC is located provides other possible military targets.

Adjacent to the center’s grounds to the southwest is the Republican Guard 104th Brigade; to the north is the headquarters of Syria’s Special Forces and its major training area. There are other Syrian Army training areas to the west.

In January, Israeli aircraft attacked a Syrian convoy near the SSRC area, which is supposed to be protected by Russian-made antiaircraft batteries. The convoy was heading for Lebanon with parts of antiaircraft weapons. Reports claimed the SSRC was hit, but aerial photos showed no damage.

The Syrian rebels believe the SSCR area will be a U.S. target. Qassim Saadeddine, a former Syrian Army colonel and spokesman for the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, told the Reuters news agency the group was poised to take advantage of those strikes.

Among the sites Saadeddine mentioned were “elite forces believed most loyal to Assad” and “headquarters of military leadership . . . [and] certain weapons storage areas.”

On Tuesday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was confident the attack plan would “deter and degrade” Assad’s chemical forces. He also made clear that he was preparing “several target sets, the first of which would set conditions for follow-on assessments, and the others would be used if necessary.”

As I wrote Tuesday, the precedent worth recalling is Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, in which the Clinton administration went after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s facilities for weapons of mass destruction over four days.

Although the operation almost immediately faded from the American public’s mind because it was followed quickly by the House impeachment debate, it did destroy Iraq’s WMD infrastructure, as the Bush administration later discovered.

It’s also worth recalling what was involved.

The first night, about 250 Tomahawk missiles and 40 fighter-bomber sorties were employed, focusing on Iraq’s air-defense network. The targets included fixed antiaircraft sites and radars and command-and-control installations. That was so U.S. planes could operate safely.

In the following days, targets included the Republican Guard and other special forces, intelligence elements and air bases. WMD facilities were also hit, including dual-use factories that produced components for chemical and biological weapons, as well as research laboratories. The United States also went after missile production and launching facilities. Overall, some 415 cruise missiles and 600 bombs were used against 100 targets. The Pentagon claimed 97 of them were successfully struck.

Dempsey became more specific about Syria at Wednesday’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said he was going after targets “directly linked to the control of chemical weapons but without exposing those chemical weapons to a loss of security.”

That could include SSCR and its subsidiaries, but also military elements including, perhaps, the Republican Guard’s headquarters in Damascus, which sits on a large compound near the presidential palace. Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and is suspected by the opposition of having a role in ordering the Aug. 21 chemical attack.

Dempsey also listed attacking “the means of delivery” of the chemical weapons, which could involve not just sites where rockets and missiles are based or stored, but also the factories where they are built. His last category was “those things that the regime uses . . . to protect those chemical weapons.” There, Dempsey mentioned air defense.

Overall, he said the “target package is still being refined as I sit here with you.”

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.



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