Delaying U.S. retaliation may increase effectiveness

WASHINGTON – A delay to let Congress debate authorization for U.S. military strikes sets up a cat-and-mouse game in Syria, giving Bashar Assad time to seek hiding places for troops and equipment as the Pentagon steps up surveillance to find targets for Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The Syrian president’s regime is already “moving resources around” and placing prisoners or other civilians in places it thinks the United States may attack, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers at a House hearing Wednesday.

The delay, though, isn’t just to Assad’s advantage, Dempsey said.

“Time works both ways,” he told a Sept. 3 Senate hearing . “We have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities and we continue to refine our targets.”

President Obama announced Aug. 31 that he would ask Congress to support his decision to launch a military strike, “limited in duration and scope,” in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus. At the time, Obama said Dempsey told him “that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive — it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”

Karl Mueller, an air-power analyst with the Rand Corp., a U.S. sponsored research organization, said Dempsey’s correct to suggest that, by shifting men and materiel, Assad may expose them to U.S. surveillance. “Moving things around in the process of hiding them can make them more visible” to intelligence agencies, Mueller said in an email. “So the idea that delay helps us make an attack that’s more effective is plausible.”

– Bloomberg News

Russia adding naval ships in eastern Mediterranean

MOSCOW – Three Russian naval ships were sailing toward Syria in the eastern Mediterranean on Friday and a fourth was on its way, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a source at navy headquarters.

Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Thursday that Russia was boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, but primarily in order to organize a possible evacuation of Russians from Syria. He did not say how many vessels were being sent.

The prospect of increased Russian naval presence near Syria has stoked fears of a larger international conflict if the United States orders airstrikes over an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital. The U.S. already has numerous warships in the Mediterranean.

Two Russian amphibious landing vessels and a reconnaissance ship have passed through the Dardanelles strait, according to the report carried by Interfax, a privately owned agency known for its independent contacts within Russia’s armed forces.

Three Russian war ships were seen sailing through the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday.

Interfax reported that another landing ship had left the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Friday morning and was to pick up a “special cargo” in Novorossiysk before sailing toward the eastern Mediterranean. The state RIA Novosti news agency also said that the landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov would be headed toward Syria after picking up cargo in Novorossiysk, which it said would take several days.

– The Associated Press

U.N. chief, Syrian mediator criticize potential U.S. action

NEW YORK – U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his top Syria mediator sharply but indirectly criticized potential U.S. military strikes against Syria, saying any additional use of force could exacerbate the country’s civil war while violating international law.

Speaking on the margins of the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Ban delivered a stern warning about the risk of military action to a gathering of international dignitaries that was hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence,” he said.

Ban and his advisers have expressed growing unease about the risk that U.S. military action will inflame a Syrian crisis that has cost more than 100,000 lives and upend whatever slim hopes remain of forging a diplomatic solution.

Ban traveled this week to Russia with Lakhdar Brahimi, his special envoy on Syria, to try to revive a dormant U.S.-Russian initiative to organize political talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition.

– The Washington Post

Syria sends reinforcements to battle in Christian village

BEIRUT – The Syrian government sent reinforcements, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, to a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus where rebels have battled regime troops this week, a monitoring group said Friday.

Opposition fighters led by an al-Qaida-linked rebel faction attacked the ancient mountainside sanctuary of Maaloula on Wednesday, and briefly entered the village a day later before pulling out in the evening. The assault has spotlighted fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the prominent role of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The government forces sent to Maaloula have taken up positions outside the village, which is still under the control of local pro-regime militias, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

– The Associated Press