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Take your pick: Syria is a target-rich environment for U.S. missiles

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The Assad dynasty significantly militarized Syria over the past few decades, thus providing the Obama administration a rich list of targets should it order punitive airstrikes against the regime.

It could get personal, with as many as five Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean aiming cruise missiles at President Bashar Assad's palace on Mount Mazzeh overlooking Damascus' southern neighborhoods.

The U.S. also could go after what are deemed command-and-control sites in Damascus, the capital. The Defense Ministry and its feared intelligence wing are in Umayyad Square, and the Interior Ministry stands nearby in Merjeh Square. In hitting those sites, President Obama would be taking the war to downtown Damascus.

U.S. military commanders may decide to target the forces Mr. Assad holds most dear — those who protect the regime in Damascus and are deployed to fight insurgents in various cities in the nearly 2-year-old civil war.

On the capital's northern end sits Mount Qasioun, home to the country's largest collection of military sites as well as commercial shops and restaurants.

In May, the Israeli air force bombed Qasioun's Jamraya military research center, a complex thought to be involved in receiving and transporting rockets from Iran to Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group in Lebanon.

Hezbollah fighters began going to Syria last year to fight alongside Mr. Assad's army against tens of thousands of rebels representing Islamic and secular groups — some Syrian, some from outside the country.

Like his late father, Hafez, Mr. Assad has paid close attention to protecting Damascus and has used the 220,000-member army to fight off invaders and internal threats.

On Qasioun is a web of military installations for commandos, the Republican Guard and the elite 4th Armored Division that comprise career soldiers thought to be the most loyal to Mr. Assad's regime.

"The 4th Armored Division has performed as Bashar al-Assad's indispensable elite unit since the outset of the 2011 uprising," Joseph Holliday said in a report by the Institute for the Study of War on Mr. Assad's array of military tools. Mr. Holliday's research for "The Syrian Army Doctrinal Order of Battle" included interviews with army officers who defected.

The armored division also keeps forces around the presidential palace at Mount Mezzeh. Nearby is an air base stocked with Russian-made attack and fighter jets.

The city of Homs, 100 miles north of Damascus, has emerged as the second-largest host for army forces. Elements of several divisions, including the 4th, have showed up there.

Significant air attacks on Qasioun and Mezzeh could degrade Mr. Assad's best ground troops and deprive him of his most loyal fighters.

"In order to hedge against defections, Bashar al-Assad has deployed only the most loyal elements of the Army," Mr. Holliday said in his book. "Within the conventional divisions, this loyal core has been limited to small detachments selectively deployed, while the regime's praetorian, majority-Alawite divisions have been deployed in full."

Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which is practiced by Iran's theocracy and Hezbollah.

There are other targets such as surface-to-air missile batteries, bases for helicopter gunships and munition bunkers scattered around Damascus. Two other targets: special forces training camps in the mountains of al Dreij between Damascus and the Lebanon border, and in Jebal Druze near Jordan.

War planners might choose to hit a military academy in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial center, or coastal defense battalions with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles along the Mediterranean coast.

All told, Mr. Assad rules an army of three corps encompassing 13 divisions of about 15,000 troops each, operating to protect the capital and the borders with Lebanon and Jordan. His most loyal are maneuver forces deployed to where the rebels are trying to take ground.

Mr. Holliday, a former Army intelligence and infantry officer, said the civil war has caused a transformation in Syria's armed forces.

"Defections and attrition have exacerbated the regime's central challenge of generating combat power," he wrote. "These dynamics have weakened the Syrian Army in some ways but also honed it, such that what remains of these armed forces is comprised entirely of committed regime supporters."

Added to the mix are pro-regime bands of militias that have carried out some of the most brutal attacks. They are backed by Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The fact that Mr. Assad is using his army as a maneuver force and relying on bands of unconventional fighters makes it difficult to target them with cruise missiles, which usually strike stationary targets. Strike fighter jets can find and hit moving targets, but the Obama administration has stressed that any attack will be limited — in effect, ruling out tactical sorties over Syria.

Norman Polmar, a leading naval researcher, said that four destroyers can fire 80 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

"The 1,000-pound warhead can destroy the palace, ministries, command centers, storage depots, hangars, bridges," he said. While that would not end the fighting, "it could make life very uncomfortable for Assad."

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