The White House and the Pentagon have repeatedly ruled out “boots on the ground” in Syria, but Defense Department officials were less certain Thursday on whether U.S. military personnel might be sent to help secure or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little gave a vague answer when asked if U.S. troops were prepared to assist should an international agreement allow Russia to take control of the tons of chemical weapons believed to be in the stockpiles of President Bashar al-Assad.
“I’m not going to speculate on who may or may not be participating in a process that may or may not take place,” Little said. “We’ve got to see where the process goes” before the U.S. military considers involvement, he said.
The first steps in the process were taking place in Geneva, where Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting for a second day with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Moscow’s proposal to have international teams take control of the chemical weapons.
Syria has tentatively agreed to the Russian initiative and also agreed to join the international ban on chemical and biological weapons.
Lavrov has urged the U.S. to speed the negotiations by dropping the threat to launch strikes on Syria, but Little said “the threat of military action is driving the process forward.”
To back up the threat, the U.S. was keeping four destroyers off the Syrian coast and the Nimitz carrier strike group in the Red Sea, though some of the ships may be replaced if the negotiations are drawn out, Little said.
“We have a mix of assets that would be available” to back up the threat, Little said. He wouldn’t comment on whether submarines were also in the Mediterranean to join with the surface ships in launching Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. Little stressed that “we remain fully prepared to act” in the event that the talks with the Russians fail.
Any strike on Syria would also likely include B-52 bombers and possibly B-2 Spirit bombers firing cruise missiles from “stand-off” positions beyond the range of Syrian air defenses.