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U.S. Fears Aleppo Is Next for Chemical Weapons Strike

WASHINGTON— Obama administration officials believe that they must respond quickly to the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons, or else the regime will deploy them again in Syria's largest city, now a key stronghold of the opposition.

"Aleppo would probably be one of the likely targets," said a senior administration official.

The military strikes being considered by the administration are primarily aimed at deterring further use of chemical weapons by Syria as well as by other nations that retain substantial stocks of such weapons, such as North Korea.

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"What does it say to the world if a government can get away with using the most heinous weapon, chemical weapons, on its own people?" the official said.

The concern for Aleppo is one reason behind the administration's push for a quick response, which is considered likely to consist of aerial strikes launched from outside Syrian air space. While the administration may opt for strikes carried out on a single day by cruise missiles fired from Navy warships in the Mediterranean, military officials also have presented options for a more sustained campaign of strikes over several days.

"The options are not limited to one day," said the administration official.

With U.S. officials convinced that intelligence—including intercepted communications and satellite images—definitively show that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own people, the U.S. and its close allies are jointly preparing for a military strike.

The administration is still debating the precise objective of the military strike, according to officials. A longer campaign of airstrikes could be aimed at degrading the regime's ability to use its chemical weapons in the future.

On Wednesday, the Arab League condemned the Syrian regime but declined to endorse a military strike. Some North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, including Italy, have expressed doubts about a strike against Syria unless the United Nations authorizes military intervention.

U.S. officials have played down expectations that the U.N., Arab League or NATO would explicitly authorize a strike. Instead, a coalition of allied governments led by the U.S. would conduct the strikes, aimed at enforcing international law barring the use of chemical weapons.

Still, U.S. officials have been conducting urgent diplomacy, with allied governments through out the week. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his German counterpart about the response. On Tuesday Mr. Hagel told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the Pentagon was "ready to go" should President Barack Obama order an attack.

Mr. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials also contacted counterparts around the world in the last day.

The administration and Pentagon have also been conducting extensive discussions on the Syrian regime's likely response to the attacks. Officials noted that not only Syria, but also Iran and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah may retaliate.

"We believe we can manage any Syrian reprisals," said another senior administration official. "We are confident we can defeat their defenses."

Write to Adam Entous at adam.entous@wsj.com

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