Operational control of any strikes on Syria ordered by Obama will rest with a veteran carrier pilot and an Army general who was awarded a Silver Star for his actions in the invasion of Iraq.
Adm. Bruce W. Clingan, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, was overseeing the five Navy destroyers with the U.S. Sixth Fleet off the coast of Syria carrying hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles that were expected to be the weapon of choice for a U.S. strike.
President Obama announced Saturday that he would put any plans for an attack on hold as he will wait for authorization from Congress before an attack. It’s unclear when Congress will return from its recess, which was originally scheduled to end Sept. 9, but lawmakers could return sooner.
The 58-year-old Clingan, of Lafayette, Ind., received his commission in 1977 through the Naval Reserve Officer Traning Corps. He has flown the F-14 Tomcat with numerous fighter squadrons and commanded naval assets in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Syria comes under the area of responsibility for the U.S Central Command, led by Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who took over CentCom from Marine Gen. James Mattis last March. Austin, a West Point graduate, led the forward headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division in the drive to Baghdad in 2003, and commanded the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
Most generals carry sidearms, but the 60-year-old Austin, of Thomasville, Ga., was known for showing up on the front lines with an M4 carbine and plenty of ammunition. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in Iraq in 2003 and later took over from Gen. Ray Odierno as overall commander in Iraq to oversee the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
One of the major concerns for Clingan and Austin in planning an attack was eased Saturday when United Nations inspectors, who had been gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons, drove out of Syria to Beirut and then took a plane to the Netherlands.
From Clingan’s headquarters in Naples, Italy, he is choreographing the combat air patrols over the ships to protect against the possibility of a Syrian counter-strike. He is also coordinating with his counterparts in France, the only other nation that has committed to joining in action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Two French warships left the port of Toulon on Friday but the French contribution was expected to be limited to standoff SCALP cruise missiles launched from Rafale or Mirage 2000 fighters.