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How U.S. Might Try to Avert Disaster in Attack on Syrian Chemical Sites

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

A Syrian rebel fighter seeks cover on Saturday during heavy combat north of Aleppo. Former U.S. military targeting specialists and munitions experts cited options for reducing unintended casualties in any U.S. attacks against Syrian chemical weapons sites (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras). A Syrian rebel fighter seeks cover on Saturday during heavy combat north of Aleppo. Former U.S. military targeting specialists and munitions experts cited options for reducing unintended casualties in any U.S. attacks against Syrian chemical weapons sites (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras).

WASHINGTON -- If the United States or its allies mount an attack against Syria’s chemical arsenal, a combination of tactics and technologies might help reduce the risk of unintended civilian casualties, according to munitions specialists and military targeting experts.

Former Syrian army officials have warned that President Bashar Assad might be expected to unleash his chemical weapons in a last-ditch bid to retain power. That dire act that could trigger heightened U.S. involvement, including direct military intervention to help Syria’s armed opposition bring down the government.

Military strikes by the United States almost certainly would be aimed, as well, at thwarting any repeat use of Syrian weapons of mass destruction.

A huge complication in planning for such a scenario, though, is that Washington’s attack itself could release a chemical plume that harms or kills innocents.

In determining how best to go after the deadly Syrian stockpiles while protecting civilians, “there’s really no good choice,” said Gary Crowder, a retired Air Force colonel who had a leading role in U.S. joint conflict-planning efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere.

Still, “there are things you can do to minimize the potential for collateral damage,” said Michael Eisenstadt, a former Army war planner who now specializes in Arab-Israeli security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Options might include hitting chemical stocks only under certain environmental conditions -- with wind, air temperature and precipitation being key factors -- and employing munitions designed to pierce containers and incinerate harmful materials, experts said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said early this month that Washington has “sent an unmistakable message” to Assad that using or losing control of his chemical arsenal “would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.”

Regional defense experts say U.S. intervention might involve attacks on chemical facilities or units, and possibly more direct military assistance to rebels. Should the Syrian government lose its command over chemical arms or collapse altogether, Washington could dispatch ground forces to help secure sensitive sites.

An effort to safeguard and account for the entire Syrian chemical stockpile could take years, particularly if they have been mingled with conventional weapons -- as occurred in Iraq -- or moved in an effort to keep them secure, Eisenstadt said in a July issue paper.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last Tuesday cited intelligence indications that the Syrian military had “leveled off” initial chemical preparations since loading weapons with the nerve agent sarin. At the same time, Assad’s regime has begun to use Scud ballistic missiles against rebel targets, last week leading a State Department spokeswoman to say the Syrian government appears “more and more desperate.”

Syria is thought to have one of the most advanced chemical-weapon capabilities in the region, to include stocks of mustard blister agent, as well as sarin and possibly VX nerve agents. However, the exact size and composition of its chemical arsenal is not publicly known. The Mideast nation has an estimated dozen or so major chemical arms production and storage facilities.

Damascus has neither signed nor ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 188-member pact demanding the elimination of all arms that carry these deadly agents.

Washington to date has provided limited material support for Syrian rebels and refugees, as well as for neighboring nations Turkey and Jordan. Should a deeper U.S. involvement materialize in an effort to impede WMD use, these are ways in which the Defense Department might seek to minimize hazards to the local population:

-- Block access to chemical storage bunkers: U.S. airstrikes could be directed against the entryways of underground facilities in which chemical weapons are stored. Creating tons of rubble might effectively prevent Syrian troops from accessing these substances -- and potentially avoid, or at least minimize, a chemical release that could be expected if the arsenal were attacked more directly, according to experts.

“You could blow up the entrance to the bunker with a Small Diameter Bomb, so that then they’d have to clear out the entrance before they get access to the bunker,” Eisenstadt said in a Thursday interview. “You could keep it under UAV [drone] surveillance. And if you see them trying to dig in, then you could strike … the regime troops who are trying to dig into the bunker.”

A tactic like this might also prove effective if concerns heighten about extremists or looters getting hold of dangerous chemical stocks.

This attack scenario is probably more complex than it appears, though. Any use of nonstealthy drones or manned aircraft for surveillance or strike missions would probably first require a massive effort to disable Syria’s air defenses, Eisenstadt said.

A ground infiltration by commandos might make direct action against chemical bunkers possible without extensive air support, but could prove quite challenging to accomplish and risky for the special operations forces involved, specialists said.

Also, experts warned, an attack against storage sites either by ground or air units could demand an extent of intelligence about chemical locations and disposition that the United States or its allies do not have.

Syrian chemical weapons are believed to be located not only at several main sites, but also at a number of smaller and far-flung locations across the country. Even a concerted attack might leave a significant portion of Assad’s chemical arsenal available for use, experts said.

-- Make storage areas toxic: One way to deter access to the Syrian chemical arsenal would be pierce the bunkers with small bombs, aiming to generate leaks of the nerve or blister agents but without blowing up the materials, Eisenstadt said.

“If it’s a hardened bunker, you could use a small penetrator munition that’s strong enough to punch through but not with a big enough charge that it would explode the entire bunker,” said the former Army war planner, noting he was unaware if the military had ever tested such a tactic to assess feasibility.

“So everything inside would be a very toxic environment -- even in your chem. [protective] suits, you wouldn’t want to go in there -- and anyhow, whatever munitions that may have survived … may be damaged and may not be usable, or they might be under a pile of rubble,” Eisenstadt said.

Such an approach might be politically risky in that it revolves around an intentional release of chemical agents, which might be seen as contrary to international law even if intended to avert a larger disaster.

-- Pierce and burn. Some munitions in the U.S. stockpile are capable of piercing chemical-loaded storage barrels or stockpiled shells in a way that could disable them, Crowder said in an interview last week. A different munition might then be employed in a second-wave attack to destroy harmful agents, he said.

Like a huge fire bomb, a fuel-air explosive weapon “fills the air with a gas and then ignites the gas,” Crowder said in a Thursday interview. “That weapon, if used against chemical facilities or chemical weapons, would basically burn up the chemical portions of them.”

Though this form of attack risks harm to any civilians in the vicinity, Crowder argued the effects would likely be more limited than if Assad were to deliberately target urban areas.

“If you can’t capture or gain control of the weapons on the ground, you’re far better off making an effort to destroy those weapons -- even though there will be ramifications -- than you are [if] letting the enemy employ those weapons,” he asserted, saying a chemical barrage by Syrian troops could be “grotesquely destructive.”

-- Go after means of delivery. If Syrian rebels continue to make advances and come close to toppling the Assad regime, the last thing Washington might want is an 11th hour attack against chemical stocks that threatens to sicken the nation’s people, Eisenstadt said. For that reason, the Obama administration and its allies might shy away from targeting the chemical agents in favor of destroying unloaded artillery shells or missiles capable of delivering them, he said.

“That’s kind of a fool’s errand because there are potentially a very large number of delivery systems on the battlefield,” Eisenstadt acknowledged. “If you want to end up bombing every delivery piece, that could be pretty time-consuming.”

A more reasonable alternative might be to “only hit the pieces that we’ve identified chemical agents in their proximity,” he said.

-- Prevent Syrian troops from receiving chemical attack orders. “Interdicting command and control,” Eisenstadt said, would involve “targeting the ability of those who give the orders to communicate with the units that actually execute the orders.”

If the Syrian president retains strict control over any use of chemical weapons, “potentially that means going after Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Some transfer of chemical weapons might yet occur, but the hope is that these would be minimized and no extensive chemical use could be carried out -- or at least not without some intelligence warning, Eisenstadt said.

“It is possible that small quantities could be transferred by small groups ‘below the radar screen.’ We probably can’t watch all the sites all the time. So there’s always a chance of diversion in small quantities that we won’t notice,” Eisenstadt said. “If they wanted to divert large quantities, there will be a larger footprint … [and] it’s hard to do it without being noticed, maybe.”

-- Seek least-risky conditions for strike against chemical agents. Under some circumstances, Washington or its Mideast allies -- potentially to include Israel -- might find it unavoidable to attack Syrian chemical agents directly, despite the potential for unintended casualties.

This might occur, for example, if the Syrian military is observed transporting chemical arms to units actively fighting rebels, or is seen moving chemical stocks to Lebanon or into the hands of violent extremists such as Hezbollah.

One rule of thumb would be to strike targets -- possibly to include moving ones -- in remote locations where there are few people downwind, according to Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

For those targets where a nearby population center is of particular concern, environmental factors can either diminish or exacerbate the effects of a chemical cloud, according to experts.

Their advice: Hope for a cold, stormy and slightly windy day for the attack. Variable wind direction and higher velocity can dilute a primary release cloud by redirecting it and making it turbulent, according to Noblis, a science and technology consultancy.

Air temperatures below freezing minimize evaporation, and precipitation can wash away settled aerosol particles or vapor in the atmosphere, the Noblis website explains.

Settled particles can cause ground contamination capable of harming those with direct contact. Injury can also occur as these ground particles evaporate into a secondary cloud, according to experts.

However, airpower alone offers little chance of full success in destroying the dangerous arms, experts said.

“Many munitions would probably survive [air] strikes, leaving them vulnerable to pilferage – presuming that looters had the proper protective gear to function in a contaminated environment,” Eisenstadt said in the issue paper.

Crowder argued that an air-ground team using special forces inside Syria to call in focused airstrikes would have the best odds of successfully destroying Assad’s special weapons, while minimizing damage to civilians.

“You could do a limited intervention in terms of stealth bombers … and fixed target sites,” he said. “You literally could launch that attack -- with the right intelligence -- within a day.”

-- Avoid targeting chemical weapons altogether: Global support for a military intervention could quickly disappear if Syrians are inadvertently harmed and the circumstances in which civilians were victimized becomes impossible to prove. Rumors planted by the Damascus regime could quickly spiral out of control over the Internet or through the news media, turning global opinion against Washington and its allies, Crowder said.

“Without any [U.S.] people on the ground, [and with] any leakage of weaponry, any story that Assad or anybody else wants to tell can be told,” he said. “We would have no ability to confirm or deny that story.”

Crowder said striking Assad’s chemical arsenal should be part of any major U.S. intervention in Syria, but argued that the best way to save lives would be to overthrow the governing regime.

“[If] the Assad regime has become detrimental to world stability and is having a potential devastating effect on its own population and potentially neighboring populations and it has to go, then there are consequences to that decision. … You have to go after the regime and attempt to take it out as rapidly as possible,” he said. “If you’re just playing around with chemical weapons and that’s your only political dog in the game, then you’re making a huge mistake.”

Yet, Washington’s broader use of military force in another Muslim nation -- following more than a decade of Western involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – could create a politically volatile dynamic for the Obama team, said Marc Garlasco, a former civilian intelligence analyst at the Defense Department who specialized in high-value targeting.

Even a U.S.-led attack that is intended to be limited in scope could prompt Assad to escalate the conflict in ways Washington might not be able to foresee or control, he said.

“We’re not just talking about one facility,” said Garlasco, who until recently was a military adviser to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The way that you have survivability of these types of weapons is you have them in multiple, dispersed locations. [If U.S. forces] hit one where you believe that [chemical weapons are] being prepared, does that suddenly allow them to pop off others?

“And what about the possibility that there are sites that we have not yet detected?” he added.

Assad might be expected to retain his chemical arms and avoid their use, preferring to continue a protracted civil war by conventional means that largely keeps Washington and its allies on the sidelines, several issue experts observed. The Syrian leader could also find little reason to divert his weapons to the few friends he has abroad.

“The chemical weapons are one of the few [tools] he has in his back pocket that he can always pull out and use as a bargaining chip,” Garlasco said. “It’s his trump card. So why are you going to give up your trump card?”

Deterring the use of these weapons -- without risking chemical leaks or a possible descent into a broader regional war -- could save the most lives, he argued.

“There are a whole bunch of really bad options here,” Garlasco said of the counter-chemical scenarios. “Sitting back and pushing him not to use them, I think, is the best.”

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