View Syrian chemical sites and air bases in a larger map
It seems more and more likely that the United States will take some kind of military action against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. On Aug. 26, Secretary of State John Kerry all but said the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians, a move the Obama administration says it will not tolerate. Kerry's words came days after the U.S. announced it is stationing four guided missile destroyers off the Syrian coast.
The goal of the attacks is unclear. But one of the suggested aims is to stop the Assad government from using chemical weapons. If that's the case, the American military may well find itself going after everything from chemical plants to arms depots to airfields in an effort to sever the the Syrian military's ability to make, store and fire its deadly sarin, mustard, and VX gas stockpiles.
The map above shows suspected locations of Syrian government chemical weapons sites as listed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative combined with the locations of Syrian air bases. The map shows facilities where chemical weapons are suspected of being made or stored along with the air bases containing the helicopters and jets that could be used to shoot chemical weapons at the rebels or civilians. It also shows Assad's palace in Damascus along with the headquarters of the Syrian military intelligence service, the Syrian military's general staff, the Special Forces Command, and the Republican Guard. (They are marked by flags on the map.) These are a few of the key command and control sites may also be targeted by the U.S., though they would likely be evacuated for secret backup locations in the event of U.S. airstrikes.
In theory, Assad's military can launch chemical attacks from the ground and from the air. In practice, air is the much better option, according to one defense expert. Yeah, Assad's military has hundreds -- if not thousands -- of easy-to-hide cannons and rocket launchers that could be used to fire off chemically-loaded artillery shells or rockets. But Chris Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War thinks they won't be nearly as useful as the aircraft are. First off, the rebels have denied large swaths of land to Assad's army, making it impossible for him to deploy artillery in many places throughout Syria. Furthermore, these ground-launched weapons have a much shorter range than his aircraft.
"If you're gonna use artillery or rockets to deliver chemical weapons, then you have to have that artillery close enough to where you actually want to use them," said Harmer. Assad's troops are "gonna have adequate forces, rockets, launchers, artillery shells to employ them [chemical weapons] right there in Damascus" as they did last week. However, "if they want to use it anywhere else, they're going to have to use air power."
"I think the most effective tactic at this point to deny further use of chemical weapons would be to take out the Syrian air force," said Harmer.
"My assumption is Assad has dispersed his chemical weapons stockpile sufficiently that there isn't one big fat target waiting to be hit," added Harmer. "So, using cruise missiles to run around looking for individual targets gets really expensive, really quickly."
Tony Cordesman, the veteran military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests, doesn't believe such a campaign is worth doing. "Chemical weapons alone are not a reason to use force. Even the most successful cruise missile strikes would not destroy Syria's holdings," he writes in a newly-released study. "There is no credible chance the U.S. can locate or destroy Syria's entire holding without a massive air campaign and some kind of presence on the ground. Even if the Assad regime has not done the obvious, and used the last few months to covertly disperse a large portion of its weapons, cruise missiles simply don't have that kind of destructive power."
There's also the issue of civilian harm. Some worry that hitting chemical weapons depots or factories may hurt or kill large numbers of innocents if the chemicals are released into the air by exploding missiles. Assad's military is said to possess chemical weapons ranging from sarin and VX to mustard gas. While sarin may, in some circumstances, vaporize relatively quickly when hit with a missile, mustard gas isn't as easy to destroy and a missile strike could push it into the air. (The U.S. military goes to great pains to destroy its own chemical weapons far, far away from people just in case there any tiny leakage of the deadly poisons from the destruction facilities.) Even if the number of people killed by the release of toxins from a U.S. airstrike is relatively small -- and relatively might be the key word here -- compared to the numbers who who die when Assad uses his chemical weapons, the PR catastrophe that would result from Syrian civilians dying from a U.S. airstrike meant to protect them from chemical weapons would be pretty awful.
Harmer says he's not particularly worried about chemical collateral damage; the worst of the weapons, like sarin, are stored in "binary" format, with their chemical pre-cursors in separate units. "These weapons are more difficult to use than people realize; damaging them in place may vent chemicals to the atmosphere, but it is not like nuclear radiation -- chemical weapons will dissipate" relatively quickly, said Harmer. "There may be some collateral damage [in a strike destroying such weapons], but far less than use of chemical weapons" by the Assad regime.
Yet Harmer himself, credited by some as the man who put the bug in Washington's ear about a limited cruise missile campaign to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, thinks it might not be a very good idea. A few limited strikes without a broader strategic objective might make us feel good, he argues. It won't change the trajectory of the war.
As Killer Apps has pointed out before, truly destroying Assad's ability to fight the rebels would involve at least one U.S. aircraft carrier and a ton of fighter jets, bombers and support aircraft in addition to any destroyers. It could very well mean hitting political targets, in addition to purely military ones, as Cordesman suggests. While there's no way Assad could stave off such an onslaught, the U.S. could be faced with the prospect of keeping order if the rebels began to turn on each other in a bid for power. It looks increasingly likely that if the U.S. hits Assad, it will be a limited campaign aimed at punishing him for using chemical weapons, for now.