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Hagel: US 'finalizing' Syria strike plans

Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelArmy taps University of Wisconsin to lead research into hybrid vehicles, aircraft While our foes deploy hypersonic weapons, Washington debates about funding Hillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers MORE said President Obama will receive completed military plans Wednesday to strike Syrian safe havens of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).

"The president of the United States has the constitutional and statutory authority to use military force against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq, and U.S. [Central Command] is refining and finalizing those plans, which Gen. [Lloyd] Austin will brief to the president tomorrow in Tampa," Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

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Targets would include ISIS command and control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure, he said.

"General Dempsey and I have both reviewed and approved the CENTCOM plan," Hagel said.

Hagel pushed the president's proposal to train and equip moderate anti-Assad regime rebels to fight ISIS on the ground in Syria amid some skepticism by lawmakers who are planning to vote on the program in coming days.

"A rigorous vetting process will be critical to the success of this program. [The Defense Department] will work closely with the State Department, the intelligence community, and our partners in the region to screen and vet the forces we train and equip," Hagel said.

"We will monitor them closely to ensure that weapons do not fall into the hands of radical elements of the opposition, ISIL, the Syrian regime or other extremist groups," he said.

Hagel acknowledged "there will always be risk in a program like this," but he said, "we believe that risk is justified by the imperative of destroying ISIL — and the necessity of having capable partners on the ground in Syria."

Hagel said the U.S. would continue to press for a "political resolution" to the Syrian conflict, adding that the U.S. would not "coordinate or cooperate with the Assad regime. We will also continue to counter Assad through diplomatic and economic pressure."

Hagel said more than 40 nations have expressed willingness to participate in America's campaign against ISIS, and more than 30 are willing to offer military support.

That includes Georgia, Turkey, the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations, and 22 nations of the Arab League, Hagel said.

Hagel said allies like the United Kingdom, France and Australia are already contributing. Additional nations would make commitments at next week's United Nations General Assembly.

Hagel announced that Saudi Arabia will host the U.S. training and equipping program of moderate Syrian opposition forces.

The Defense secretary also tried to tone down remarks he made last month that ISIS was "beyond anything" the U.S. has seen before.

"So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and get ready," he had said on Aug. 21.

But on Tuesday, Hagel said, while ISIS "clearly poses an immediate threat to American citizens in Iraq and our interests in the Middle East," they did not yet directly threaten the U.S.

However, "if left unchecked, ISIL will directly threaten our homeland and our allies," Hagel said.