McRaven heads the U.S. Special Operations Command, which suggests that congressional and military leaders have contemplated the use of commando units to secure Assad’s nightmare weapons. America’s elite warriors are certainly equal to any task the national command authority would give them, but if the above parameters are accurate—45 storage facilities, five factories, 75,000 interdiction troops, all in the middle of a multi-sided war—it’s a task McRaven’s overworked men should not be given. Consider this: The entire Special Operations Command comprises 63,000 personnel, including shooters and civilians—and some 12,000 of them are already on deployment in any one of 70 countries. Simply put, there may not be enough of them for this mission.
That leads us to conventional ground forces. We certainly have enough, and some regional allies might chip in. But securing Syria’s chemical arsenal with ground forces would be a massive and dangerous undertaking. Such an operation would be all the more dangerous if it were conducted in a “non-permissive environment”—military-speak for a warzone.
Striking Assad’s WMD facilities by air poses less risk to allied personnel, but it presents other challenges. To be sure, the U.S. Air Force is equal to the task. And with NATO ally Turkey on Syria’s northern border and the open waters of the Mediterranean to Syria’s west, U.S. warplanes would have clear routes of attack into Syria. However, Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses are more formidable than Libya’s, as the Turkish air force learned when one of its reconnaissance planes strayed near Syrian airspace.
In addition, even the most effective airstrikes cannot guarantee that every chemical-tipped shell or SCUD is destroyed. Without boots on the ground to inventory Assad’s arsenal, there remains a possibility that some chemical weapons would survive the airstrikes and be scooped up by hostiles. Moreover, the allies would want to avoid inadvertently dispersing the very weapons they are trying to destroy. But in this regard, it’s important to remember that a) one of the main ways weaponized mustard is destroyed is by incineration and b) during the 1991 Gulf War, coalition airstrikes successfully destroyed Iraqi facilities that produced and stored chemical agents.
These sorts of contingencies may sound scary, but we must keep in mind two realities: First, these and other contingency plans are surely on the books. We know that the U.S. military has planned counter-proliferation strikes against Iran. The Clinton administration ordered the Pentagon to develop plans for “executing preemptive counter-proliferation strikes in 1994” against North Korean nuclear sites. In the early 1990s, the Gulf War was, in effect, a counter-proliferation war. And Reagan and the elder Bush contemplated military strikes against Gadhafi’s chemical-weapons sites.
Second, these contingencies must be weighed against the alternatives. There are no good options in nightmare scenarios like this. That’s why they are called “nightmares.” The challenge is to choose the least bad option. And we may be approaching a juncture where doing nothing is no longer an option.
Of course, the notion that Barack Obama—the anti-Bush—would launch attacks against Syria in order to preempt the use or transfer of WMDs is as unthinkable as, well, what might happen with those WMDs.
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