Mission All-But-Impossible: Destroying Syria’s Chemical Weapons from the Air

Such strikes would likely spread deadly agents downwind, possibly killing civilians

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MC1(AW) Nathanael Miller / U.S. Navy

The destroyer USS Barry, currently steaming in the Mediterranean Sea awaiting possible orders to attack Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles, launches one against Libya on Mar. 19, 2011.

Taking out Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile isn’t easy – and is fraught with perils, including creating plumes of deadly vapors that could kill civilians downwind of such attacks.

That’s why Pentagon officials suggest that any U.S. and allied military strike against Syria will tilt toward military, and command and control, targets —including artillery and missile units that could be used to launch chemical weapons — instead of the bunkers believed to contain them.

Secretary of State John Kerry made clear Monday that military action is all but inevitable in the coming days. “We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets,” he said. “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

But targeting the weapons themselves may not make the most military sense.

For starters, neither the U.S. nor its allies know where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is keeping his cache of hundreds of tons of sarin, mustard gas and other chemical agents. That means that any military strike to take them out will surely leave some untouched.

(MORE: The Two Big Reasons Obama Might Strike Syria)

After more than two years of civil war, the Syrian military has distributed many of its chemical arms beyond the original 15 or so major storage sites where Western intelligence agencies believe they were housed when the conflict began. “Dispersing the stuff would make [attacking it] more difficult,” says Eliot Cohen, a former Pentagon official now at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Blowing up storage sites, he warns, also could “leave the facilities so shattered that people can come in and pick the stuff up that you don’t want them to pick up.”

Secondly, the Obama Administration and its allies aren’t considering deploying troops to seize and secure such weapons. The Pentagon has estimated that mission could take 75,000 troops.

Last month, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, detailed for Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services committee, the difficulties associated with using military force to seize control of Syria’s chemical stockpile.

“We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components,” he said in his July 19 letter assessing U.S. military options in Syria. “At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites.”

Neither the nation—nor President Obama—has any desire for U.S. combat boots on Syrian soil. So U.S. defense officials are weighing air strikes to punish Assad’s government for their suspected use of chemical weapons. But because the Pentagon doesn’t want to put primarily U.S. pilots at risk of being shot down and held hostage by Damascus, it’s leaning toward the use of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles—TLAMs—against Syrian targets.

(MORE: Assad Taunts U.S. Over Iraq, Vietnam)

Unfortunately for U.S. war planners, Tomahawk cruise missiles pack a relatively puny 1,000-pound warhead. That’s unlikely to punch through buried chemical-weapons bunkers and generate the intense, sustained heat needed to incinerate sarin or other chemical weapons inside.

“Doing this with Tomahawks is going to be a challenge,” says Amy Smithson, a chemical-weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington. “You may get half of them with Tomahawks, but I have plume concerns—anybody in the neighborhood is going to be in big, bad trouble” if the poisonous agents drift their way.

Bulk chemicals not already loaded into individual shells are especially vulnerable to being spread by bombing. That’s why Smithson believes that Western governments should provide those near targeted chemical-storage sites with protective gear before launching any attacks. “Syrian civilians and rebel forces,” she says, “could benefit greatly from gas masks.”

Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sketched out a likely U.S. military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in that July letter to Levin. He termed it Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes:

This option uses lethal force to strike targets that enable the regime to conduct military operations, proliferate advanced weapons, and defend itself. Potential targets include high-value regime air defense, air, ground, missile, and naval forces as well as the supporting military facilities and command nodes. Stand-off air and missile systems could be used to strike hundreds of targets at a tempo of our choosing.

Cohen is leery of a tit-for-tat strike that he fears the Obama Administration is considering. The apparent indiscriminate use of deadly agents against civilians, he argues, requires a disproportionate response by the U.S. to convince other states from doing the same.

“You want people to understand that, if you do this, you lose your war,” Cohen says. The Obama Administration should consider destroying Syria’s air force, its air defenses, and many of its airfields to retaliate if Syria’s use of chemical weapons is confirmed. “The objective,” he argues, “should be crippling the regime.”

MORE: Obama Can Strike Syria Unilaterally

96 comments
JenBriney
JenBriney

@jackhutton @cspanwj Thank you. The articles confirmed stockpiles, not active production lines. I do not fear Syrian CW in Kansas City

RainyDayInterns
RainyDayInterns

Do the people who have died care whether it was from chemicals or metal? 

We have been turning a blind eye to deaths in countries in Africa for decades. North Korea? We "don't know" what is happening there. China? Walmart needs them.

Do we support either the current Syrian government or those fighting against Assad? -No.

Will Syria be a friend of the US if we intervene? -No.

Will Syria be a friend of the US if we do nothing? - No.

Why the sudden change of hearts now? What? Our oil prices might go up? We must "do" something.

Ah...we understand now.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Might be impossible but it would make the Ditherer posing as Commander in Chief appear decisive. He sure loves image enhancement. Maybe just like women likes breast enhancement. Only problem is when the dirt hits the fan, the idiot will be nowhere to be seen.


JohnRintala
JohnRintala

Another war based on WMD lies!

The Syrian government has been winning and had NOTHING to gain and EVERYTHING to lose by using chemical weapons. The al Qaeda "rebels" were losing and had EVERYTHING to gain by framing the government. This should not be so hard to figure out.

The rotten-to-the-core Saudi monarchy is behind all the carnage in Syria. It is ironic that the Egyptian junta is a force agains war.

If the US attacks Syria, it will be another nail in the coffin of US standing in the Middle East, and will probably not change the outcome of the war.

Altold
Altold

Dear Valentine.godoflove, pls can we also make a passionate appeal to Senator John McCain. This guy is pushing so hard for war. He is a war monger. And wait a minute, has Obama lost his sneses. Tell Obama he is planing to slaughter our young people in the military for nothing and making a funeral arrangement for the US economy!

StephenD.Leonard
StephenD.Leonard

And we all owe a very special thanks to the leaders and People of China and the Leaders and People of Russia for their full commitment in this world endeavor to protect the people of Syria, secure these weapons and prevent others from suffering any further genocide.


Thank you.

StephenD.Leonard
StephenD.Leonard

Folk's we are not going to war with Syria. America and our people want no part of any civil war between anyone. 


However on another token, we are obligated (as the rest of the world who signed the UDHR) under world peace and security treaties, to participate in ensuring that innocent men, women and children are not forced to suffer from genocide.


Adolph Hitler attempted and very much intended to wipe Jews off the earth by committing genocide in the same fashion that al-Assad is doing to his dissenters in Syria.

With all due respect to our people, allies and the innocent women children men in Syria, we must act as responsible world leaders to secure the chemical weapons from being used as they have been.

Please do not use the term United States war against Syria when you are talking about our joint cooperation with every responsible nation who strives for world peace and security. We are one world, with many different views, opinions and ideas, but we all agree to set aside our differences when it comes to the right to be free from torture and genocide.


May god bless those who stand with us as we endeavor for world peace.

GeraldZuckier
GeraldZuckier

Hey, who remembers when the Israelis took out the Syrian nuke facility? And the usual suspects got mad at them? Might have been a little worse than gassing the town, had they not. At very least Asad would have had the capability to give everyone else the brushoff.

Regio121
Regio121

President Obama needs to rephrase “accountability to any government that commits crimes against those who cannot defend themselves” 1000’s had been already perish, too many to be ignored, forget about the chemical weapons justifications.

BillHabing
BillHabing

Same old story if you believe this I hope you believe in Jesus for backup at least.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

IN CAPS SO THE SENIOR CITIZENS CAN SEE . READ BETTER....

WHY IS OBAMA SO KEEN IN PUTTING  US INTO A NEW WAR......WITH SYRIA.......WE GOT OUT OF IRAQ......AND GAINED - ZERO.......WE ARE LEAVING AFGHANISTAN.....AND THE NEXT PRESIDENT.....IS AN ENEMY OF THE UNITED STATES....WHAT HAVE WE GAINED......ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.......WE PAID IN ZILLIONS AND ZILLIONS OF DOLLARS AND THE PRICELESS BLOOD OF OUR YOUNG SOLDIERS.....FAOR WHAT......NOTHING.

SINCE OBAMA HATES THE USA......READ DREAMS OF MY FATHER", HIS AUTO-BIOGRAPHY..........AND ALL COLONIALS I.E. ENGLAND, FRANCE, ETC.......HE IS DESTROYING THE UNITED STATES.......BY SENDING OUR SOLDIERS TO DIE......AND DIED THEY HAVE AND STILL ARE......FOR A USELESS MISSON......DESTROYING OUR ECONOMY SO WE ARE GOING BROKE.....50 MILLION......CAN YOU COUNT.....50 MILLION AMERICANS.....ARE ON WELFARE.....THEY ARE DRAINING THE STATE....AND OBAMA'S ULTIMATE GOAL.....

OBAMA, THE MOSLEM PRESIDENT'S GOAL.....IS FOR THE RADICAL ISLAMISTS LIKE AL QUEDA.....THE MOSLEM BROTHERHOOD.....ETC.....TO WIN....WHY TO WIN?......BECAUSE.....ONLY THEN ......WILL OBAMA REALIZED HIS "DREAMS FROM MY FATHER"......TO AVENGE HIMSELF.....ON THE COLONIALS......BY HAVING THEM KILLED BY OUR RADICAL ISLAM ENEMIES.......THAT IS WHY.....THAT MOSLEM TERRORIST SOLDIER....WAS NOT TRIED FOR 3 YEARS......COLLECTING HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN PAY AND RAISES......NOW .....HE IS JUDGED GUILTY.......IF HE IS NOT EXECUTED.....WHICH IS HIS WISH AS AN ISLAM MARTYR.......THEN .....YOU KNOW......OBAMA....IS DESTROYING THE USA....FROM WITHIN......LIKE A 5TH COLUMNIST......THE MOST DANGEROUS OF ALL.

WHO WILL SAVE US FROM THIS MOSLEM/GOLFER/AFRICAN TRIBAL CHIEF ?.....WHERE ARE THE TRUE PATRIOTS AND GENERALS AND ADMRALS AND COLONELS?BUSINESS TYCOONS?

VALENTINE, WORLD HISTORIAN, MILITARY HISTORIAN, POLITICAL HISTORIAN....COMEDIAN....LOL 

renfieldc
renfieldc

Like all missions, it's easy to get started but hard to get out. This latest possible mission will just add more hatred much of the world has towards America's war lovers.

Jon_in_AZ
Jon_in_AZ

So we can't destroy the chemical weapons.  If we do get involved and hasten the defeat of Assad, how do we ensure the chemical weapons don't fall into the hands of the rebels, including the Al Qaeda members?  I don't want to see "boots on the ground", but how do we avoid it?

rihamel
rihamel

@TIME Ofcousre go kill more civilians to save less civilians. Didn't u learn any thing from Iraq?!

jackhutton
jackhutton

@JenBriney @cspanwj '2007 assessment indicated that Syria is capable of producing several hundred tons of chemical weapon agents per year'

jackhutton
jackhutton

@JenBriney @cspanwj 'Syria reportedly manufactures chemical weapons agents, including mustard blistering agents, deadly nerve agents: Sarin'

drudown
drudown

@StephenD.Leonard 

You are a fool.

What, pray tell, is either sovereign going to do "make the Syrian people" get along?

The only outrage should be directed at OUR government for DIVERTING OUR TAX DOLLARS to, what, futilely enforce a Police Power over non-citizens. Whether via our Armed Services or these "private security" outfits...it just an egregious WASTE of money. You can't stop these Arab people from killing each other. Blaming Russia and China is just double folly.

RainyDayInterns
RainyDayInterns

@StephenD.LeonardDo the people who have died care whether it was from chemicals or metal? 

We have been turning a blind eye to that with the countries in Africa for decades. North Korea? We "don't know" what is happening there. China? Walmart needs them.

Do we support either the current Syrian government or those fighting against Assad? -No.

Will Syria be a friend of the US if we intervene?
-No.

Will Syria be a friend of the US if we do nothing?
- No.

Why the sudden change of hearts now? What? Our oil prices might go up? We must "do" something.

Ah...we understand now.

drudown
drudown

@StephenD.Leonard 

Sure, buddy, why don't find me the express provision in the US Constitution and spare your "we are the world's policeman" moral gibberish that just serves as a naked pretext for War Profiteering.

"After the event, even the fool is wise." - Viscount Symonds

Better yet, go eat some Freedom Fries.

drudown
drudown

@Regio121 

So, what are you saying? We invade Syria or any other nation where "thousands of people" die?

That is non sequitur for our government of Limited Powers. 

GeraldZuckier
GeraldZuckier

Just playing devil's advocate here, but the Obama boys managed to get our power into Libya and out again.

drudown
drudown

@jiwalden64 @csmonitor @ghoshworld @TIMEPolitics 

Perhaps you would be so kind to identify the GOP "person most knowledgeable" on the subject you criticize the POTUS? In other words, you seem to imply leadership on this complicated issue is lacking at the POTUS level but not in the GOP leaders of Congress. Reconcile such a contradiction with facts, reason and analysis.

drudown
drudown

@Jon_in_AZ 

Gee, I heard the same exact BS before being led down the primrose path to an Iraqi tar pit...with ZERO discernible return to the People of the United States on our $4 trillion (and counting) "investment".

As such, the alleged "we can't afford to allow" these chemical weapons or WMD or evil dictator" threats are not persuasive given the fiscal, strategic and military strain on OUR sovereign. If people in other parts of the world need to go through a bloody revolution to realize their identity, it is not the purview of the United States Congress or Executive branch to place the alleged "best interests" or "security interests" of the Syrian, Iraqi or Egyptian people over their OWN constituents. 

Enough of this "we have to act" nonsense. If you are referring to Congress raising revenue pursuant to its prescribed duty (per Article I, Section 8) to avoid a self-imposed "shut down"...yes.

Invade another Arab sovereign just to ratify the Zionist propaganda dispensed by the Arab elite? Foolish diplomacy and fiscally imprudent.

"Thy love afar is spite at home." - Emerson

BillHabing
BillHabing

@Jon_in_AZ It might be a good idea to stop and ask who's hands these chemical weapons are in as we speak, or type, my bad. What if among all the other psyops (propaganda),  you can't believe what you think you actually see, sorry, even on the internet, but especially in the corporate media not even a conspiracy just the way it is Media is America and America is media.

renfieldc
renfieldc

@Jon_in_AZ When you talk of "we", where do you figure in the scheme. Have you experienced service in armed forces?

JenBriney
JenBriney

@jackhutton @cspanwj So what could we DO about it that could actually help? Bomb & disperse the chemicals? Again, I don't see how it helps

JenBriney
JenBriney

Technically, that's our job. Boehner: (202) 225-0600, Reid: (202) 224-3542 RT“@jackhutton: @cspanwj .. & call Congress back to work tonight!

jackhutton
jackhutton

@JenBriney @cspanwj possibly.. if that's a start.. then 'that's a start'.. they seem relatively well-supplied.. But Something..

JenBriney
JenBriney

@jackhutton @cspanwj Seems like an international effort (lead by UN) to block their supply lines would be more effective than bombs