Syria Chemical Weapons: This is How You Disarm Them

It is now clear that the Syrian government used sarin nerve gas to attack suspected rebel forces in Damascus on August 21. There is no doubt that the “red line” was breached. With the American public delivering a clear consensus against committing ground forces, the Obama administration will almost certainly limit any intervention to remote attacks. In the best circumstances, destroying chemical weapons is a dangerous and intensive task, but trying to destroy them from the air without spreading their deadly agents makes it even more difficult.

Drawing from my experience serving nine years in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRND) for the U.S. Army, here is a rundown of the options available for destroying chemical weapons, with a look at the feasibility of different methods and the complications that each entails.

An air campaign could focus on eliminating chemical munitions, military chemical units, chemical weapons production facilities, or all of the above. The first step is to identify the targets and fix their locations. Since the first mentions of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in July 2012, U.S. intelligence has been tracking the movements of Syria’s chemical assets. There is a ready supply of human intelligence from rebel forces and refugees, a steady stream of signals intercepts from Syrian government forces, and near constant visual surveillance using aerial imagery platforms. Social media and news reports from inside Syria also provide open-source intelligence.

Syria is reported to have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Locating all of these munitions, even with the best intelligence available, will not be easy. Syria is also known to store chemical agents in“binary” form, where two components of the chemical agent are stored separately and only mixed before being loaded into munitions. This makes transport safer and simpler but can vastly expand the number of targets that need to be located and destroyed and makes them easier to conceal.

Syria’s chemical weapons-production facilities are reported to be located near major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, while munitions are stored at as many as 50 different sites. As the U.S. prepares for an attack, the regime is likely spreading munitions across cities throughout the country, making detection more difficult, necessitating more strikes, and increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Some intelligence reports indicate that the Assad regime lacks the ability to produce certain necessary precursor ingredients, but Syria stockpiled chemicals from European suppliers before export controls became effective. It also doesn’t take much to create many of the chemical agents used. They can be produced by anyone with an advanced chemistry degree given a moderately equipped refinement facility. Targeting Syria’s production facilities is possible, but will be difficult. Tracking the movements of Syrian military chemical units and weapons platforms capable of firing chemical munitions would be an easier task.

The hardest part comes after the munitions are located. Once the targets are acquired they must be destroyed without releasing the deadly chemical agents — it’s possible but a bit like bombing a paint factory at long range and expecting not to have any splatter.

Syrian chemical units and their launchers can be targeted using airstrikes, drones, or cruise missiles launched from naval vessels. However, given the likelihood that the Syrians have intentionally moved these weapons systems into populated areas, even precise strikes on them could lead to civilian casualties. On a larger scale, there is also the danger that an attack on launchers loaded with chemical munitions could spread toxic substances as far as Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, or into the Mediterranean Sea.

America must face the possibility that in carrying out attacks to prevent the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons it risks unleashing those deadly agents on a civilian population.

Other than weapon systems and facilities, Syrian soldiers working in chemical units are another likely target for attack. The troops in these units are usually outfitted in identifiable protective gear for their own safety, a clear indicator of the presence of chemical agents and their impending use. But attacking these soldiers presents a similar set of problems — their likely proximity to chemical weapons means that targeting them risks hitting the munitions they are guarding or operating and releasing them into nearby populations.

The care America takes in eliminating its own chemical weapons reflects how dangerous the process is, even when it’s done in a safe and controlled environment. Since 1986, the protocol has been to incinerate the agent at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or to neutralize it using hot water and a caustic compound. After the destructive phase, the next step involves extensive monitoring and testing of air, water, and soil to ensure no residual release.

Simply dropping a conventional bomb on an ammo dump is not a solution. Besides the initial deadly effect of dispersing chemical agents, their release into air, soil, and water can have severe health effects for years down the road.

A chemical rocket or artillery round does not explode like conventional munitions. They contain a propellant to get the munitions on target and only enough explosive to rupture the round and release their agent, either bursting in the air above a target or upon hitting the ground. This is why there were several rockets found semi-intact after the August 21 attack on Ghutah which were subsequently sampled by UN investigators.

The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency has conducted extensive research into anti-chemical strike options. One weapon they have studied is the non-explosive CBU-107 “PAW,” which releases 3,700 extremely dense metal rods into a high-altitude free fall that act like thousands of daggers, penetrating and shredding a target without the use of explosives. This weapon is less likely to cause an explosion at production facilities but it will rupture munitions, releasing their chemical agents and making casualties of anyone in the vicinity.

Thermobaric explosive weapons, like the BLU-119/B “CrashPad,” are another option. Thermobaric explosives, essentially the most powerful non-nuclear devices in the U.S. arsenal, work by sucking in all the oxygen in the blast radius and using it to fuel an intense, high-velocity explosion reaching over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In theory, such devices have the potential to suck in and incinerate chemical agents. However, no conclusive testing of such devices on live chemical agents has yet been conducted.

While they may have a better chance of destroying chemical munitions without releasing their agents, the blast and heat generated by thermobaric weapons are intensely deadly. Structures near the blast will be destroyed and persons not killed by the initial explosion or flying debris will suffer lethal damage to internal organs caused by the pressure wave it creates. The effect of their use in a populated urban area would cause casualties comparable to a small nuclear explosion or a chemical attack. Using a nonexplosive penetrator or a thermobaric device in a city such as Damascus could cause more civilian casualties than the regime’s attack on Ghutah, which is just the reason Assad’s forces are likely relocating their chemical assets closer to urban centers.

The ability to safely destroy large stocks of chemical agents with airstrikes is still unconfirmed, though it is theoretically possible. Testing that method now requires accepting that even relative success may mean killing thousands of the very Syrian civilians we would be acting to protect. As the American people and Congress consider the proposals for action made by the president and his cabinet they should be aware of the chances for success, the risks, and the potential cost in lives.

This post previously appeared on the Truman National Security Project blog.