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He added, “Anytime there is an opportunity for the taking, Islamic extremists will do everything they can to take power.”

The Times previously asked a U.S. official to assess the power of the Al Nusra Front, the most active al Qaeda group in Syria.

The official said, “The Nusra Front is clearly playing an important role in the opposition because the group’s roughly 6,000 fighters are disciplined, well-armed and capable. They’ve also partnered effectively with other rebel brigades. However, Nusra is still just one part of a complex, multipronged opposition that doesn’t have one dominant force.”

It remains to be seen what type of air campaign President Obama will order against Syria in retaliation for the regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians and whether the air strikes would significantly help Mr. Assad’s foes.

The Navy has positioned destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its only ship-to-shore firepower are Tomahawk cruise missiles and perhaps a few armed drones.

Mr. Obama, and his top military adviser, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have expressed great reservations about any military action. This was before confirmation that the Assad regime unleashed chemical weapons Aug. 21, killing more than 300 people.

‘As little as possible’

Their statements appear to make it unlikely that the president would order waves of jet fighters over Syria.

“I think the administration will be tempted to do as little as possible — fling a few cruise missiles at symbolic targets, claim victory and declare that the crisis is over,” said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“The targets are likely to include chemical weapons production plants, military units that unleashed the chemical weapons and possibly air defenses. But such limited symbolic strikes would not decisively affect the fighting on the ground or force Assad from power.”

John Pike, who runs GlobalSecurity.org, said the White House wants to do “as little as possible.”

“Obama is caught between a basic desire to do as little as decently possible, while having to do enough to restore intrawar deterrence, which requires placing at risk things the regime holds dear, which might require a much more extensive campaign,” he said.

“But deterrence is in the mind of the beholder, and without having some idea why Bashar did this deed, it might be hard to know what needs to be hit to place him in a deterred frame of mind, and I have yet to hear a theory on why this and why now.”

Another problem is the cost. The military is under orders to cut another $52 billion out of next year’s spending unless a White House-congressional deal is reached to head off automatic budget cuts called sequestration.

“I would not advocate a no-fly zone and would strongly oppose it, as it requires too many sorties to accomplish,” Gen. McInerney said.

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