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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

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.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs