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What to Do About Syria

Vital U.S. interests are at stake.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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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.

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