Lara Jakes
and Lolita C. Baldor

WASHINGTON: When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration is sure about one thing: President Bashar Assad’s government must be punished after allegedly using deadly chemical weapons, possibly including sarin gas, to kill hundreds of Syrians.

The United States and allies accuse Assad of crossing a line that President Barack Obama said would have “enormous consequences.” That’s now expected to trigger a military strike, limited in time and scope, with the goal of downgrading and weakening Assad but not toppling him or destroying his forces.

The details of how and when the U.S. military and allied forces might attack are under debate, but would be based on complex plans developed and repeatedly reworked over time by the Pentagon. They could further be complicated by Obama’s decision to seek authorization from Congress for the use of force.

A look at what’s known and what’s unclear about how it might unfold:

Who decides?

The order for the strike would come from Obama, delivered to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The operation probably would fall under the purview of U.S. Central Command, headed by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin.

Who launches what?

Five U.S. Navy destroyers — the USS Gravely, USS Mahan, USS Barry, the USS Stout and USS Ramage — are in the eastern Mediterranean Sea waiting for the order to launch. And the USS San Antonio, an amphibious assault ship, has now joined them. The USS San Antonio, which is carrying helicopters and Marines, has no cruise missiles, so it is not expected to participate in the attack. Instead, the ship’s long-planned transit across the Mediterranean was interrupted so that it could remain in the area to help if needed.

The destroyers are armed with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which have a range of about 1,000 nautical miles and are used for deep, precise targeting. Each one is about 20 feet long and less than two feet in diameter and carries a 1,000 pound warhead. The Navy also now has two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea that are loaded with fighter jets.

Is the U.S. going it alone?

With Britain on the sidelines, France has said it is preparing for military action against Syria. French military officials confirmed the frigate Chevalier Paul, which specializes in anti-missile capabilities, as well as the hulking transport ship Dixmude, had set off Thursday from the Mediterranean port of Toulon as part of normal training and operational preparations — but denied any link to possible Syria operations.

France also has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, as well as fighters that could launch from air bases in the French island of Corsica or western France.

How do nations coordinate?

Details are unknown about how the mission strikes are being allocated or if the United States and France have mapped out separate, agreed upon target lists. But the U.S. routinely conducts exercises with allies, particularly NATO countries such as Britain and France, in which they all practice exactly this type of joint attack mission.

Because any operation is expected to be limited, there likely won’t be more organized, formal war rooms.

Is ground combat likely?

Obama has ruled out putting troops on the ground in Syria, and because of Assad’s extensive air defense systems, officials believe it is too risky, at least initially, to deploy fighter aircraft or even low-flying drones that could be shot down.

What will airstrikes target?

Dempsey has told Congress that lethal force would be used “to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons and defend itself.”

At a minimum, Western forces are expected to strike targets that symbolize Assad’s military and political might: military and national police headquarters. Assad’s ruling Baath Party headquarters could be targeted, too. It’s doubtful the United States would directly target Assad. U.S. policy prohibits assassinating foreign leaders unless they have attacked America first.

When would assault start?

Obama said Saturday that he would seek authorization for the strike from Congress, which is not scheduled to be back in session until Sept. 9.

Any military operation would probably unfold at night or in the predawn hours in Syria, with an initial assault possibly lasting several hours and involving dozens of missile strikes from several warships.

Officials believe the strikes could be limited to a single operation, but if extended would likely last no more than a few days.