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.

    Click to EnlargeClick to Enlarge
    x
    Click to Enlarge
    Click to Enlarge
    ​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

    Sarin
    • 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

    VX
    • 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

    You May Like

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    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!

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.