News / Middle East

Bleak Options for West Should Syria Use Chemical Weapons

A fire is seen inside an apartment (R) of a damaged building due to heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, December 5, 2012.
A fire is seen inside an apartment (R) of a damaged building due to heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, December 5, 2012.
U.S. and allied forces would face major challenges if they intervene in Syria's civil unrest to prevent President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people, according to military experts.
​U.S. news media began discussing the possibility of a U.S.-led intervention in Syria after the United States and its partners in the NATO alliance warned that they would not stand by if Assad tried to use chemical munitions in the conflict, or if he lost control of such weapons to certain militant groups in the country.

NBC News reported late Wednesday that "the Syrian military is awaiting final orders to launch chemical weapons against its own people after precursor chemicals for deadly sarin gas were loaded into aerial bombs." Fox News aired a similar report, also citing U.S. official sources.

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​Syrian officials repeated this week that they would not use chemical weapons against their own people. Assad's deputy foreign minister said Thursday that Western powers were whipping up fears of a chemical weapons threat as a "pretext for intervention." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also expressed doubts about a chemical weapons threat.

If the West does intervene, the options for an international military response are stark, analysts say.

Ground options

Any ground troops sent into Syria to seize chemical weapon sites may have to battle the elite Syrian forces assigned to guard them. Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said most of those sites are "heavily defended" by Assad loyalists.

Syria's sophisticated air defenses, supplied by Russia, also could pose a threat to an aerial commando strategy.

"There is no way you can move aircraft into the areas without being detected by radar," said Cordesman, a former U.S. Defense and State Department official. "So even special forces raids could have serious problems just in getting to a facility undetected."

Even if allied commandos overcame Syrian resistance, they would likely have a tough time securing Syrian storage sites.

"You (would be) walking into a facility where you don't know the safety rules and the exact storage procedures," Cordesman said. "Dealing with an unknown set of agents is always a matter of risk, even for the United States."

U.S. officials have said they have the ability to monitor the quantities and locations of Syria's chemical weapons with the help of U.S. surveillance assets.

Western security experts say Syria's chemical arsenal includes sarin and VX gas, both lethal nerve agents, and mustard gas, a blistering agent.

Suspected Syrian Chemical Weapons

  • Man-made highly toxic odorless, tasteless, colorless nerve agent
  • Possibly used during Iraq-Iran war
  • Exposure can be by inhalation, ingestion and skin absorption; people can recover with treatment form mild or moderate exposure

  • Odorless, tasteless man-made nerve agent; most potent of all nerve agents
  • Slow to evaporate, can last for days on objects
  • Exposure can be through skin contact or inhalation; people can recover with treatment for mild or moderate exposure

Mustard Gas
  • Chemical warfare agent that causes skin blisters and mucous membranes
  • Sometimes odorless, sometimes smells like garlic, onions or mustard
  • Exposure can be by inhalation, ingestion or skin contact
  • Vapor released in the air can be carried long distances; exposure not usually fatal

Source: CDC
Syria is thought to store some of its sarin gas in the form of precursor chemicals or components that are less toxic than the final product and require fewer safety measures. VX gas is believed to be stored as a more toxic final compound requiring greater caution.

Cordesman said allied forces could use unmanned aerial vehicles to provide surveillance over chemical sites and alert them to any hazards that they should avoid.

Retaliation risks

​Another challenge to any ground operation in Syria is the possibility that Assad's forces would use chemical warheads against the invading forces.

Syria's military is believed to have the capability to deploy those weapons in a variety of ways, including Scud missiles, Russian-made fighter jets and artillery.

Cordesman said allied troops could shield themselves from mustard gas with chemical protection gear and take antidotes in case of exposure to nerve gas. But some antidotes are semi-incapacitating and would make it hard for troops to keep fighting.

That may make an aerial attack a more viable option, Cordesman said.

"You may be much better off using precision-guided missiles to destroy a chemical facility. The (resulting) contamination can be contained and decontaminated," Cordesman said. "And in some ways, the local contamination makes it almost impossible for the Syrians to (later) extract the chemical weapons."

But Cordesman said an air campaign cannot completely prevent chemical contamination from spreading to populated areas and harming the environment.

A first option, Cordesman said, may be for the West to strike Mr. Assad's headquarters and leadership facilities.

"Threatening the Assad government with decapitation may be a more successful way of deterring the problem than trying to solve it all by force," he said.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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Comment Sorting
by: arizona from: USA
December 10, 2012 8:57 AM
SO,the west destroyes syria with hired killers,and the death and destruction they caused is asads fault, I think thats the same logic the voters in america used to elect the anti-christ to power,and the russians trying to help their alies makes them the bad guys(was that before or after they kicked the queens bankers out of russia) the americans have killed millions of middle easterners(1.5 million children) and no war crime trials yet?? SO who's the bad guy here?the ones protecting their friends and families or the ones trying to kill them and their children,(who are famous for killing children) check any american hospital,their dumpsters are full of dead children......................................

by: John from: New Zealand
December 07, 2012 1:10 PM
I apolgise for Bob's comment. In New Zealand most of us aren't so painfully ill-educated/informed about America's place in world politics. From the perspective of most of the people I know the general consensus is that the internal problems of middle eastern countries need to be played out by the countries concerned (much like Russia's "public" position. The line in the sand though must be to stop Islamic fundamentalists gaining control of WMDs. Only the US and Russia have the global strength to stop this.
In Response

by: arizona from: USA
December 10, 2012 9:30 AM
thats really funny john,did you know america is ran by the queen of englands banks? when have you ever heard of america saving anyone?america can't even save its self much less any body else,No John,america is broke and has to borrow money from china to pay its bills and can't even repay what its borrowed now,If anyone saves syria it will have to be someone else,cause america is about to go under the waves and the people don't care in america,there's about to be the worse famine in america the world has ever seen..........................

by: Ray from: Northeast USA
December 07, 2012 7:09 AM
Detecting the presence of sarin, vex, mustard gas or any chemical weapon is best done with the so-called zNose, whose sensitivity is in parts per billion. The zNose, placed or dropped near the suspected site and activated remotely, will detect every simple and complex chemical compound and relay this information to an analyzer, which will display the many chemical elements in the sample. Any such zNose operation would be a positive confirmation of heretofore suspicion.

by: dmb from: usa
December 07, 2012 4:27 AM
Love how the tens of millions of gallons of dioxin laden agent orange are so conveniently forgotten. Even though they still eat and breath some of the most damaging chemicals ever used on people.. Geneva Conviention against chemical warfare, what a joke.

by: JKF from: Ottawa, Canada
December 06, 2012 4:43 PM
To deal with such weapon's precursors, and those already initiated, very high temperatures may be a possible solution. A combined (well timed/precision) munitions strike, to breakdown the hardned infrastructure; followed almost immediatly after by strategically falling air/fuel mix munitions' detonations to create the required temperatures/heat containment curtains/upward drafts..etc.. If it is possible to correctly time the events? most (BUT NOT ALL) of the chem/bio agents should be incinerated at each site.
Surely there are good experts that can provide a working solution to the case. And the tools have been seen to exist. Essentially the international orgs need to get involved to save the people from such weapons.
Even if the Assad regime does not use them, when it goes out of business, others may! Given what we see in the news, and given the rapid increase in the military capability (arms/numbers/leadership/ experience...) of the opposition, the Assad regime appears well beyond recovery = it is doomed! Assad's fate will be similar, if not worse, to Gadaffi's; He is out of escape routes. His only possible way out, and that is very tenous possibility, is to leave with a UN escort... and it will have to be a very big/well armed UN escort...I think the people of Syria will try to get him anyway. He has managed to completely turn Syria into rubble/graveyards.

by: Karla Readsalot
December 06, 2012 4:39 PM
well there aint much i can do about it, as long as it doesnt affect me personally, especially from the all important personal finance viewpoint, who gives a rats?
In Response

by: Jim from: USA
December 07, 2012 5:46 AM
For course, the same could have been said about the Holocaust.

by: Joe from: Australia
December 06, 2012 4:03 PM
If other countries were broadcasting on their news that your country plans on trying to kill you, would you believe them?

If foreign armies came to your land, would you trust they had your interests at heart?

If your city was classed as a "terrorist zone", would you still go to funerals? The supermarket? Would you drive your children to school and your wife to the doctor?

The Syrian government is very bad, but I'm quite certain that when US Freedom™ arrives it will harm many more people than the gas.

by: Bob from: New Zealand
December 06, 2012 3:28 PM
Can America please just state they want to invade all of the middle east and take the oil. It would save all the misinformation and fear mongering they stir up with it's citizens. It's funny but if this happened in the states they Free Syrian army would be called terrorists but it all depends on whose side America is on it appears.

America says it's the beacon of hope but cannot even pass legislation about handicapped people because it's seen to give the UN more power. How about giving democracy a try and some truth from time to time. Any Journalist worth his credentials can study what America has done in other countries in the last 100 years and see this is more sham marketing to get a rise out of people and a result they want.
In Response

by: Richard from: North Carolina
December 07, 2012 8:58 AM
Utter nonsense! While it might be argued that the US could benefit from security in the Gulf side of the middle-east, it gets essentially nothing from the Mediterranean side. Most US oil comes from gulf states and South America. Libya exported most of its oil to Italy and Iraq doesn't export oil to the US either. Education is a wonderful thing. Why don't you get one!

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