After a major chemical attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus, Syria, the United States and many of its allies struggled to find a response. Attempting to enforce its “red line”, America sought to conduct a series of limited strikes against the Syrian regime to deter future chemical warfare and degrade its capability to conduct it.
Yet steadfast allies such as Britain balked at attack, while the domestic outcry at home force the administration of President Barack Obama into requesting a vote on an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF)—which stood little chance of passing in Congress.
In the midst of a faltering effort to conduct even a constrained military operation, the United States stumbled into the prospect of a diplomatic resolution. Russia proposed—and the government of Bashar al-Assad nominally assented—to placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, as well as Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
While myriad questions of diplomatic viability and regime sincerity may be in doubt, assessing the merits of either military operations or multilateral cooperation requires assessing the technical requirements and feasibility of the options for disarming the Assad regime of its unconventional weapons. While the limited scope of proposed strikes is unlikely to seriously alter the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, the diplomatic deal will face many technical and logistical challenges.
First, none of the proposed military options would have denied the regime the ability to conduct further chemical attacks, and the degree to which they might degrade that ability or deter its use were in severe doubt. Initial reports of the strike emphasized that it would be primarily a standoff attack, obviating as much as possible the need for a wider air campaign and the attendant effort of clearing the regime’s air defenses. While within U.S. and allied military capabilities, forgoing a wider air campaign and relying on sea-launched cruise missiles and strategic bombers for the brunt of the air campaign minimized the immediate risk to allied combatants and kept the overall cost of operations low. Unfortunately, that all but guaranteed that punishment for using chemical weapons would rely primarily on the value sending a signal.
Chemical weapons, whether staged with their delivery system or stockpiled on regime bases, are hard targets, especially for standoff weapons. First, there is the basic issue of effectively destroying the stockpiles without endangering the civilians around them or leaving them susceptible to looting. Simply bombing those sites with large amounts of conventional munitions invites disaster. As the German bombing of the SS John Harvey and the U.S. bombing of Iraq’s al Muthanna complex during the Gulf War both demonstrated, contamination risks from dispersing chemical weapons are severe, but the destruction of the weapons is often incomplete, allowing for the regime to disperse the remaining material or for other actors to loot the facility. U.S. munitions designed for rendering chemical agents safe likely would prove inadequate in Syria. One, the CBU-107 Passive Attack Weapon, relies on the kinetic energy of thousands of penetrating rods without the collateral effects of high explosives. However, if used against a hardened facility, such as a bunker, their utility is likely low. Another, the BLU-119/B CrashPAD uses high explosives and incendiaries, and is more promising, but neither is known to have been used in the field to destroy chemical agents. Depending on the types of agents (whether an agent is lighter or heavier than air makes a difference with munitions options), layout and storage procedures of the Assad regime, no attack—whether with conventional munitions or purpose-built ones—is likely to destroy, let alone render safe, the munitions at the facility being targeted.
Beyond the technical issues of hitting and destroying a known chemical weapons stockpile, there is the issue of correctly identifying them in the first place. According to U.S. intelligence reports, Syria’s regime is dispersing the stockpile, raising the costs and complexity of a strike, and raising the possibility of temporary alternative sites the United States is not currently tracking. The regime might even nefariously relocate more of its stockpile to population centers to dissuade the United States from striking them. America might choose to sidestep this issue by striking precursor production or munitions assembly plants. Assuming it correctly identifies them, this still leaves the regime with what France estimates to be at least 1,000 tons of chemical weapons at its disposal. For those reasons, that might explain why the United States reportedly chose to forgo targeting chemical sites, instead focusing on regime command and control infrastructure and military units and bases. (The low ratio of munitions per target also suggested that destruction at chemical stockpiles would have been mostly incomplete anyway.)
An allied strike would degrade Syrian capabilities, but to what extent that degradation would meaningfully change its chemical capabilities, let alone its overall combat power, is unclear. Syria possesses a large variety of delivery systems, including aircraft, surface-to-surface missiles, and a variety of field artillery. Mobile artillery and truck-mounted rockets that can be disguised as civilian vehicles will prove difficult targets for standoff weapons such as cruise missiles. The regime can easily disperse or camouflage them, and in the case of artillery systems, they are possessed them in huge quantities.
Even tracking down more conspicuous weapons, such as large surface-to-surface missiles, may prove difficult. The Scud Hunt during the Gulf War struggled to track down and successfully locate missiles, discern them from decoys, and successfully strike them, even with the aid of special operations forces on the ground and specialized strike aircraft such as the F-15E. Though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology has improved significantly, without much wider air war and the assistance of ground forces, attempts to degrade the regime’s chemical delivery systems are unlikely to be even marginally successful. The strike’s primary hope for ending Syrian chemical use would rest almost entirely on its value as a deterrent, which may well be nil if Assad believes he can weather the physical damage of a strike and weighs the necessity of his survival above America’s will to escalate further. As one anonymous government official said, “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.”
The possibility of putting Assad’s chemical weapons under international control radically changed both the scope of the chemical weapons question as well as the nature of the problems involved. Rather than going from a mission to slightly degrade Assad’s delivery systems or deter its use of chemical arms, the question of denying and destroying the regime of chemical weapons can seriously enter the discussion. Removing and safely destroying chemical weapons always would have required some kind of ground presence in order to secure the weapons themselves, support the technicians and infrastructure required to transport and neutralize them, and monitor the progress of decommission. Providing those services is much easier when the host government assents to it rather than in the wake of an invading force, but conducting the process in a civil war is an incredibly difficult matter.
The timeline for an effort of this scale in a country undergoing civil war stretch the bounds of plausibility. Despite Assad’s insistence that chemical weapons could be destroyed within a year, and the US-Russian framework seeking to destroy his stockpiles by mid-2014, historical precedents in more stable locales suggest this is unrealistic. Many logistical questions remain unanswered. The preference for disposing of chemical weapons is to construct facilities to incinerate them in-country, which may even involve disassembling existing ones and reassembling them piece-by-piece, as it did in the case of Albania. Albania had only sixteen metric tons of chemical weapons, though, and constructing new facilities will likely be a more daunting task in Syria. Dismantling them could cost billions, but compared with the cost of a comparable military action it may save both money and lives.