American interests in Syria are clear: preventing terrorists from acquiring chemical weapons; depriving Iran of its most important ally and staging-base in the Middle East; and preventing al Qaeda from establishing an uncontested safe haven in the Levant. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which President Obama’s proposed “limited strike” will secure these interests, but not about whether the interests are real or vital. Bashar al-Assad has one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world. Al Qaeda franchises control territory in Syria and have some of the most effective fighting forces on the ground. Iran’s own military and security forces are active in Syria in defense of the Assad regime. The threat to Americans is very real.
Assad’s expanding use of chemical weapons against his own people is more than an atrocity and an egregious violation of international law and norms. It also materially increases the risk that terrorists, whether al Qaeda or Hezbollah, will get hold of some warheads. When not in use, weapons of mass destruction are generally kept in heavily guarded and secured bunkers—regimes that possess them fear both that they might be stolen or smuggled away and that the enemy against whom the weapons are aimed might destroy them preemptively. Terrorists seeking to lay hands on the weapons, generally, would either have to penetrate those defenses (usually a task beyond their means), infiltrate the guarding force (not a very plausible option for al Qaeda facing an Alawite defense force loyal to Assad), or hope that the defense collapses, leaving the position open to plunder. Even in that last case, the United States or other concerned powers, seeing the departure of the guard force, could use bombs to prevent the terrorists from getting into the facility or removing materials from it or, in the worst case, insert troops into the facilities that were compromised, whose positions are presumably well known to us.
In order to use the weapons, however, Assad’s forces must remove them from any such protective facilities, load them onto vehicles, drive them through the war-torn streets of a conflict zone, set them up, and fire them. Those activities make the weapons themselves considerably more vulnerable to terrorist seizure, especially as they are being transported. The terrorists’ problem then shifts from one of breaching a heavily secured bunker to one of raiding a convoy—a tactic that insurgents in Syria and around the world perfected long ago. Manhandling the warheads and smuggling them out of the area or the country would present challenges to the terrorists depending on the size and characteristics of the weapons—but those challenges are by no means insurmountable.
Facing such a situation, the United States would find its own responses much more complex. To begin with, would it even be known that something was awry until after the fact? Recent media reporting suggests that the intelligence community was not tracking preparations for Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons in real time. Simply bombing the terrorists wrestling with the weapons risks setting off the weapons in a populated area. Inserting a small strike force into such an area (rather than onto a military facility separated by design from the population) would be much more dangerous and also significantly increase the risk of both American and civilian casualties. And there is the risk that the reaction wouldn’t be fast enough in any case, potentially allowing terrorists to move the weapons away from the site of the attack and forcing the United States to start an aerial hunt for them.
In short, Syria’s use of chemical weapons by itself dramatically increases the risk of those weapons falling into al Qaeda’s hands. Any action the United States and its allies could take to dissuade Assad from continuing that use—thereby persuading him to keep the weapons locked up as securely as he can—is a step toward reducing that risk.
The best solution, of course, would be to destroy the weapons or remove them from Syria. Simply bombing them from the air poses unacceptable risks, unless they are about to be seized by terrorists. There is a risk of releasing clouds of toxic gas that could kill scores or hundreds of innocent civilians, even when using advanced bombs designed to incinerate chemical weapons. Using such advanced munitions, moreover, would require putting manned aircraft over Syrian airspace, which in turn means attacking the Syrian air defense system in advance. Bombing secured bunkers also makes it impossible to determine with certainty whether all of the weapons were destroyed, while simultaneously exposing the storage facility to plunder by scattering (at the very least) its guard force. One might advocate such action, again, as a last resort, but not as a first military option.
Removing the weapons would require ground forces in large numbers. It appears that Assad keeps his chemical weapons at a variety of sites around the country, which would make it necessary to insert many strike forces simultaneously. Each strike force would need to be able to overcome the guard forces at each facility very quickly and then hold it against regime counterattacks. The strike forces would have to be accompanied by specialists in rendering chemical weapons safe enough to be transported, and those specialists would need to be supported and guarded. The process of rendering an unfamiliar stockpile safe is not instant—the forces would need to be able to hold a facility for some time. Reserve forces and rapid-reaction troops would need to be available. All of these forces would need massive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support; fixed-wing aircraft support; helicopters (including fueling stations); Medevac capabilities; and all the paraphernalia of modern ground warfare. This would be no raid on Entebbe. The U.S. military has indicated that such an option could require tens of thousands of troops, and this quick sketch bears out that calculation. Since no one in this debate is advocating sending a large ground force into Syria, we have effectively dismissed the option of seizing the weapons or destroying them and thereby entered the realm of high-risk options.
Four military forces are operating on the ground in Syria today, and are thus the candidates for custody of the chemical weapons arsenal: Assad’s military, his Hezbollah allies, al Qaeda affiliates, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). If it were clear that Assad was going to win the war and reestablish control over Syria or that the current situation was stable and could be expected to endure, one might conclude that allowing Assad’s forces to continue their custody over the arsenal was the safest option. Some administration officials, in fact, had been arguing just that until recently. But there is virtually no prospect that Assad will reestablish control over Syria (even if that were morally or geopolitically desirable), and the current situation is far from stable. In the space of a few weeks we have seen the regime go from a desperate fight to hold onto Homs to a blitzkrieg dash north to try to seize Aleppo, only to be forced back to Homs (where it has been gaining ground) and even Damascus (where it is losing ground) by rebel counterattacks. The large-scale chemical weapons attack was itself a regime reaction to the risk of losing a critical neighborhood in its capital. Persistent conflict breeds persistent instability that makes Assad’s custody of his WMD unacceptable.
Since clearly neither Hezbollah nor al Qaeda is a trustworthy custodian, and since the United States has no desire to send the military force that would be necessary to destroy or remove the weapons, the only hope of managing Syria’s chemical weapons threat lies with the success of the FSA. The United States and the international community should make it a condition of support for the FSA and for any government they might support after Assad’s fall that it agree to abide by the chemical weapons bans (to which Assad’s regime is not a party) and to hand over seized stockpiles at once to American or other international forces for destruction. There is no reason to think that the FSA would resist such a demand. Offering more meaningful aid would make it more enticing.
In the meantime, deterring or preventing Assad from using his chemical weapons or dispersing them is of primary importance. A punitive strike would be unlikely in itself to accomplish this aim—unless it destroyed or otherwise incapacitated the weapons systems Assad needs to use his chemical stockpiles, such as his aircraft and his rocket and missile batteries. The chemical agents are not militarily meaningful without their launchers, and Assad has been using them thus far for tactical reasons as well as to sow terror. Such a strike, which might well need to be repeated several times to make it clear to Assad that he would not be able to use his weapons in any orderly fashion, could buy the opposition the time it needs to succeed—and to gain control over the arsenals themselves. Such strikes, moreover, would provide immediate and tangible benefits to the opposition by degrading Assad’s ability to use the same aircraft, rocket, and missile systems to hit the rebels with conventional weapons, as his forces are now doing. It is hard, in fact, to conceive of a target set that might “degrade” Assad’s ability to use his chemical weapons in any meaningful way without also helping the opposition materially.
Preventing Assad from using his chemical weapons while robustly supporting the FSA also offers the best hope of securing America’s other two interests in Syria—depriving Iran of its forward staging area in the Levant and preventing al Qaeda from establishing a safe haven there. Unless Americans want to send a large army into Syria—which no one is advocating—this is, in fact, the only strategy that offers any hope. One can well argue about the scope and scale of the air campaign and the amount and kind of support the United States should provide to the opposition, and those arguments are important. But they should not be allowed to obscure the basic facts that the security of Americans is profoundly threatened by events in Syria and that inaction will only increase that threat.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of AEI’s Critical Threats Project.