DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, one of the people urging President Obama to act on intelligence findings and strike against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is retired General Jack Keane. He served in an advisory role in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and he's now chairman of the board of the Institute for the Study of War. Keane says he has not been involved in the most recent talks about Syria, but he has a long history of military planning at the highest levels, and he gave us a window into the planning that's going on now.
GENERAL JACK KEANE: Clearly, what is happening is the Central Command at Tampa, Florida, which oversees the Middle East and Southern Asia, has responsibility to put together an attack plan with a number of different options associated with that. That's passed up to the Pentagon, and to the joint chiefs. They look at it and put their blessing on it. Secretary Hagel would also...
GREENE: The defense secretary, yeah.
KEANE: ...and then that moves from there into the White House to look at the various options. And there are certainly risks associated with those options for the National Security Council to take a look at and make recommendations to the president. If the consensus is to do something about it - which I believe they've already achieved that - then how much do you do?
GREENE: And I wonder: What do you think the U.S. military should do? Where do you stand?
KEANE: I believe strongly that if - given what this provocation is, we should think about it strategically in terms of: What could the strike do to assist our national interests? We've already stated that toppling the regime is the national interest. I'm not suggesting for a minute that an air strike would topple a regime, but I do think if we hit the appropriate targets - given we're going to hit something, anyway - we could do some significant damage to military capacity level that could swing the momentum in the favor of the opposition forces.
GREENE: We've had some reporting on our program this week about the distinction between punitive action - I mean, just taking action to punish the Assad regime - and coercive action, doing things to actually change the dynamic in the conflict. It sounds like you're supporting the later, actually doing enough to weaken Assad and strengthen the rebels.
KEANE: Yes. Well, I mean, take advantage of the opportunity that he's presented us, and that is this horrific use of chemical weapons. I mean, this is not a formidable air organization, as many have purported it to be, and we can deal with this without any major challenge to us.
GREENE: But even if the capacity is exaggerated, as you say, I mean, if Assad were able to even fire back at one U.S. vessel in the Mediterranean, wouldn't that be enough to escalate this in a significant way?
KEANE: What is he going to fire back at it with? He doesn't have any capability to sink our ships. This a relatively poorly trained air power organization that he has. I mean, their only skill set is to deliver bombs in populated areas. Actually, the reason why chemical weapons were used is because the rebels moved in to an eastern neighborhood in Damascus, Assad pounded it with artillery, with mortars, with attack helicopters, and also with his air power. He could not dislodge them.
And then the week prior to the use of chemical weapons, the opposition forces there received the shipment through Jordon from Saudi Arabia, which did include some Soviet-style anti-aircraft weapons. They shot two of his airplanes out of the sky. No airplane has flown in that area since, and he used chemical weapons.
GREENE: Retired Army General Jack Keane is chairman of the board for the Institute for the Study of War. General, thanks so much for taking the time.
KEANE: Yeah, good talking to you, David. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.