In July, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Mullalem declared that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons would go unused in its civil war – unless a foreign power chose to intervene. The threat constituted a rare confirmation of the regime’s unconventional arsenal. The declaration raised serious concerns about U.S. policies in the event the regime did use its chemical or biological weapons. President Obama stated this would constitute a “red line” with “enormous consequences” that would alter calculations for military actions.
Given the various risks concerned with the proliferation or use of unconventional weapons, particularly chemical weapons, understanding the scope and requirements of potential military missions is essential. The first major consideration is whether U.S. and potential allied military strikes would focus on destroying, deterring, or securing Syrian weapons stocks. While a deterrent threat can be made without any military deployment, destroying Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would require airstrikes and special operations teams. A mission to secure Syria’s WMDs would likely be the most costly and dangerous of all, as it would likely involve tens of thousands of foreign ground troops, perhaps as many as 75,000, according to at least one press report.
A mission to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks could perform a preventive, preemptive or mitigating measure. Effectively degrading the entire arsenal would likely require an extremely wide target set. Syria has roughly 50 sites involved in manufacturing or storing chemical weapons. Its arsenal consists of G and V-series nerve agents, which block neurotransmitters, causing convulsions and death through loss of respiratory control, as well as blistering agents, whose chemical burns restrict respiration and form large, painful blisters on the skin. Both are absorbable through the lungs or skin, requiring a full body suit for adequate protection. Between Syria’s VX, Sarin, and Tabun nerve agents, and its mustard gas blistering agents, this totals to several hundred tons of chemical agents stockpiled for combat use.