Worries rise over the regime's WMD arsenal in the event of Assad's fall.
So far, only the Syrian people have borne the costs of the Obama administration’s do-nothing approach to Syria, but the United States and its allies in Israel, Turkey and Jordan may soon pay dearly for the administration’s disinterested, detached approach to Syria’s civil war. And I’m not talking about the assault on conscience that Assad has perpetrated or the humanitarian dimensions of the Syrian regime’s war on its subjects (though a case can be made that America should intervene on these grounds). The focus here is the national security threat represented by Syria’s WMD arsenal.
Bashar Assad’s crumbling regime fields one of the largest chemical-weapons programs on earth, including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent. Syria has mated these weapons with artillery shells and missilery. Open-source materials indicate that Syria has five major chemical-manufacturing facilities in and around the cities of Hama, Homs and Al-Safira, along with 45 chemical-weapons storage facilities. Unnamed Pentagon officials say 75,000 troopswould be required to secure Syria’s vast WMD arsenal. As Assad and his loyalists focus on survival, as the Syrian military splinters and as the country disintegrates, these stockpiles are growing increasingly vulnerable—indeed, some have been moved in recent weeks—and could fall into even less responsible hands. The candidates include: Hezbollah, which has strong ties to Assad’s Syria; al-Qaeda, which is involved in the fighting; a rogue military faction bent on revenge; or a post-Assad regime controlled by jihadists. Any of these scenarios would pose a significant threat to U.S. interests, to regional stability and to the security of allies in Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Making sure none of them transpire must be a priority as events unfold.
This is easier said than done, of course. First, unlike the civil war in Libya, where Russia stood aside as NATO intervened to prevent a bloodbath, Moscow is deeply enmeshed in Syria. Russia maintains a naval base in Syria and has provided Assad with military supplies and diplomatic cover at the UN. Hence, the U.S. and other power-projecting states simply do not have the freedom of action in dealing with Syria and its chemical-weapons arsenal that they had in dealing with Gaddafi’s Libya—especially given the fact that the White House has handcuffed its Syria policy to the UN’s lowest-common-denominator approach, as determined by Russia.
Second, unlike the revolution in Egypt, the U.S. does not have the same sort of military-to-military contacts in Syria. Moreover, Assad is no Hosni Mubarak. To be sure, Mubarak attempted to crack down on protests in the early days of the Egyptian revolution, but he chose to step aside rather than massacre his countrymen, partly because of back-channel pressure from U.S. political and military leaders.
The hard truth is that events may force the Obama administration to act—with or without any cooperation on the ground in Damascus, with or without any help from Russia at the UN.
The Pentagon has reportedly intensified discussions about Syria’s WMD threat with Israel, Turkey, Britain and France. The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. and Jordan—which is deeply concerned about chemical weapons falling into al Qaeda’s hands—are co-developing plans to secure Syria’s WMD arsenal, in the event of regime collapse or some other triggering incident. In fact, “a high-level delegation of Jordanian defense officials” traveled to the Pentagon this spring to map out possible operations to locate and secure Assad’s WMDs, according to the paper. “One plan would call for Jordanian special operations units, acting as part of any broader Arab League peacekeeping mission, to go into Syria to secure nearly a dozen sites,” the Journal reports.
“If left unsecured,” Adm. William McRaven said during a congressional hearing, “it would be, potentially, a very serious threat in the hands of…Lebanese Hezbollah.”
McRaven heads the U.S. Special Operations Command, which suggests that congressional and military leaders have contemplated the use of commando units to secure Assad’s nightmare weapons. America’s elite warriors are certainly equal to any task the national command authority would give them, but if the above parameters are accurate—45 storage facilities, five factories, 75,000 interdiction troops, all in the middle of a multi-sided war—it’s a task McRaven’s overworked men should not be given. Consider this: The entire Special Operations Command comprises 63,000 personnel, including shooters and civilians—and some 12,000 of them are already on deployment in any one of 70 countries. Simply put, there may not be enough of them for this mission.
That leads us to conventional ground forces. We certainly have enough, and some regional allies might chip in. But securing Syria’s chemical arsenal with ground forces would be a massive and dangerous undertaking. Such an operation would be all the more dangerous if it were conducted in a “non-permissive environment”—military-speak for a warzone.
Striking Assad’s WMD facilities by air poses less risk to allied personnel, but it presents other challenges. To be sure, the U.S. Air Force is equal to the task. And with NATO ally Turkey on Syria’s northern border and the open waters of the Mediterranean to Syria’s west, U.S. warplanes would have clear routes of attack into Syria. However, Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses are more formidable than Libya’s, as the Turkish air force learned when one of its reconnaissance planes strayed near Syrian airspace.
In addition, even the most effective airstrikes cannot guarantee that every chemical-tipped shell or SCUD is destroyed. Without boots on the ground to inventory Assad’s arsenal, there remains a possibility that some chemical weapons would survive the airstrikes and be scooped up by hostiles. Moreover, the allies would want to avoid inadvertently dispersing the very weapons they are trying to destroy. But in this regard, it’s important to remember that a) one of the main ways weaponized mustard is destroyed is by incineration and b) during the 1991 Gulf War, coalition airstrikes successfully destroyed Iraqi facilities that produced and stored chemical agents.
These sorts of contingencies may sound scary, but we must keep in mind two realities: First, these and other contingency plans are surely on the books. We know that the U.S. military has planned counter-proliferation strikes against Iran. The Clinton administration ordered the Pentagon to develop plans for “executing preemptive counter-proliferation strikes in 1994” against North Korean nuclear sites. In the early 1990s, the Gulf War was, in effect, a counter-proliferation war. And Reagan and the elder Bush contemplated military strikes against Gadhafi’s chemical-weapons sites.
Second, these contingencies must be weighed against the alternatives. There are no good options in nightmare scenarios like this. That’s why they are called “nightmares.” The challenge is to choose the least bad option. And we may be approaching a juncture where doing nothing is no longer an option.
Of course, the notion that Barack Obama—the anti-Bush—would launch attacks against Syria in order to preempt the use or transfer of WMDs is as unthinkable as, well, what might happen with those WMDs.
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