The presence of chemical weapons in Syria has caused much debate since the statement by the Assad regime that they could be used against an outside invasion, but not against Syrians internally. There have also been questionable reports that the Syrian opposition is attempting to obtain or capture chemical weapons to use against regime supporters. "Anonymous diplomatic sources" have said the U.S. may need as many as 60,000 troops to "secure" Syria’s chemical stockpile. Others offer that the U.S. may send in special operations units. President Obama issued a warning to Assad that their use would shift U.S. policy toward intervening. There are many options on the table to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons.
Figures on both the left and right are supporting some form of intervention in Syria. Some hawkish commentators are pushing for an Iraq-style invasion, while others support an incursion similar to the successful Libya campaign and/or enforced "no-fly" zones as in Iraq. I have personally written in support of providing limited anti-armor weapons already present in the region and non-lethal support to the opposition to level the playing field against Assad’s well-equipped military.
The U.S. should not mount a full-scale invasion of Syria as long as the conflict remains local, doesn’t spread beyond Syria’s borders, and no other world or regional power provides large-scale military support to the regime. There is evidence Syria may be a growing proxy conflict on both sides, but not enough to justify the costs of an invasion in American lives and money. American national security is not directly threatened. However, ending the violence there is in our interest. That is another debate.
An invasion would upend the domestic character of the revolution the Obama administration has been careful to respect since the beginning of the Arab Spring two years ago. If the U.S. invades Syria, it would become responsible for the aftermath. A repeat of Iraq is certainly an undesirable outcome for America at this stage. Sending tens of thousands of troops into Syria to secure its chemical weapons is undesirable and unnecessary. The early stages of Afghanistan showed the folly of using "economy of force" or maneuver warfare and ignoring the Powell Doctrine, as did the lack of enough troops on the ground in Iraq to provide security which precipitated the need for a "surge." Sending troops into Syria with the goal of only securing chemical weapons would be a repeat of these conditions. Either send in enough troops to guarantee the success of the mission and security or do not send them in at all. There is no room for half-measures. These are lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Syria’s chemical weapons and production facilities are spread across the country from Aleppo to Homs to Damascus. Putting troops on the ground to secure them would mean splitting our forces, which would necessitate communicable logistical and transport connections. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that enemies who cannot match U.S. troops directly will attack their supply convoys on major roads. The conditions for U.S. troops on the ground in Syria would be similar to those on the ground in Iraq. Adding the difficulty and danger of guarding stockpiles of chemical weapons and transporting them for disposal, most likely wearing thick chemical protective equipment, makes a mass ground invasion the most undesirable option available.
There has been discussion of inserting special operations forces into Syria to secure these weapons. Such an operation would depend upon very accurate, complete information on where and under what conditions these weapons are being stored. The U.S. claims to have good knowledge of where these weapons are, but quickly and quietly removing what are probably hundreds or thousands of chemical munitions doesn’t have a great likelihood of success. They would probably have to be destroyed where they are using explosives that generate enough heat to incinerate the chemical agents, otherwise it risks a chemical agent contamination incident akin to a "dirty bomb" for which the U.S. would be responsible. The risk of a failed mission resulting in the capture or death of U.S. military personnel or the unintentional release of chemical agents causing civilian casualties makes this option undesirable as well.
A third option, the least of evils, would be to use air delivered thermobaric explosives to destroy the chemical munitions. The success of this option would also depend upon precise intelligence as to the location of the stocks and highly accurate placement of the explosive device to minimize the risk of an accidental release. It would also eliminate the need for operators on the ground to transport and place the explosive, though personnel on the ground could certainly provide highly accurate location information or guide an airstrike.
Currently the U.S. decommissions our own chemical weapons by incinerating the raw agents in temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Thermobaric explosions exceed 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in the radius of up to 500 feet around their epicenter, depending upon the size of the device used. Such temperatures would be enough to incinerate chemical agents and minimize the chances of incidental release of the agents or other lethal gasses from the resulting explosion.
This option is also far from perfect. It does have the advantage of reducing or eliminating the need for U.S. personnel on the ground inside Syria. It still depends upon very accurate and complete intelligence regarding the location of Syria’s chemical weapons. There is still great risk of collateral damage to nearby civilian populations, but using this option to eliminate these chemical weapons and preventing their use may save more lives. It must be considered if the use of these weapons is probable and imminent and if the risk of collateral damage from such an airstrike outweighs the outcome of destroying these chemical weapons.
This is indeed a hefty decision to make. We should all hope that the situation in Syria is resolved soon without the need for any intervention by the U.S. or other states. That truly would be the best outcome for everyone involved.