The White House has asked the Pentagon to prepare an expanded list of potential targets in Syria, including those that could be hit with long-range bombers, military officials told NBC News on Friday.
The use of long-range bombers, such as the B-2 or B-52, would allow the United States more flexibility to hit pieces of the Syrian arsenal, such as missiles and artillery launchers, that President Bashar Assad is believed to be moving around the country.
Previously disclosed plans for a U.S. strike have mostly focused on Tomahawk missiles launched from American destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. The bombers would probably fly from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
One senior military official warned that such an expansion could represent “mission creep.” Public opinion polls have repeatedly found that Americans are wary of further U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
President Barack Obama, asked Friday at the Group of 20 summit in Russia about reports of a White House request for an expanded target list, characterized them as “inaccurate.”
“One thing I’ve got a pretty clear idea about is what I talked with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about, and what we have consistently talked about is something limited and proportional that would degrade Mr. Assad’s capabilities,” he said.
Obama plans to address the country Tuesday from the White House to make his case for military action to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons in an attack on a rebel-held neighborhood Aug. 21.
In a press conference at the G-20 summit, he repeatedly stressed the confined nature of any American attack and said that he knew it would be a difficult sell to both Congress and the public.
“I’m not itching for military action,” he said.
More than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, were gassed to death in Syria, the administration has said. Obama has said the world must act to demonstrate that it will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances.
An expansion of the attack plan to include long-range bombers would also have to include support equipment, including refueling capability and air cover.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifying before Congress this week, put the cost of a limited Syria mission in the tens of millions of dollars.
Hamstrung at the United Nations by opposition from Russia and China, and with Britain's parliament having voted against military action, Obama is seeking the approval of Congress for an American-led strike.
But the prospects of congressional approval are uncertain, with both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats expressing opposition. A broader American attack plan might placate hawks in Congress.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was among lawmakers who at first expressed disapproval that the American attack plan would not do enough to help the Syrian rebels. He voted for a resolution authorizing force that passed a Senate committee earlier this week.
But McCain was also confronted at a town hall-style meeting in his district by hostile constituents opposed to any U.S. involvement in Syria.