Whether Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons against his own people — and it sure looks like he did—and whether that should warrant a U.S.-led intervention, one thing is clear. It would be really hard to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpile.
Aerial weapons might not work, forcing the U.S. to deploy tens of thousands of troops to do the job.
America’s own experience underscores this unpleasant reality. In 2008, when the Pentagon announced it had eliminated half of its own chemical weapons inventory, there were nine facilities around the country to carefully dispose of the hazardous materials.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the government used two techniques for the treatment: incineration and neutralization. Both processes involved a precise mixture of heat, oxidization, water, sodium and a slew of other chemicals within a meticulously constructed reactor to slowly break down the agents.
After that the munitions used to hold the nerve and blister gases were thermally decontaminated in a metal parts cleaner and then monitored for stray emissions.
With Syria, the U.S. doesn’t have the luxury of casually eliminating Assad’s stockpile in prepared facilities. But here’s what America does have. The Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound bomb designed to dig deeply into underground Weapons of Mass Destruction sites before exploding.
In June, the U.S. displayed the MOP’s capabilities to Israel and other allies when it successfully destroyed a mock underground Iranian nuclear facility with the colossal bomb. The MOP, technically known as the GBU-57, seems like the best choice for striking Assad’s subterranean chemical weapons bases, like the one in Al Safir, southeast of Aleppo.
But there’s a downside. MOP’s blast could actually disperse poison over a wide area—an effect not unlike Assad’s own chemical attacks
“In the ideal world of the tub-thumpers it [the chemical agent] is destroyed, job done,” said Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director of CBRNe World, a trade magazine for the chemical-defense set.
“Sadly real life doesn’t work that way,” Winfield added. “What is more likely is that the Syrians get a ‘sub-optimal chemical release.’ I.e, Western activity releases an enormous plume which affects many square kilometers.”
For that reason the U.S. might be tempted to use “CrashPAD” bombs — PAD standing for “Prompt Agent Defeat.” CrashPAD shoots a barrage of incendiary fireballs to incinerate chemical agents.
As Popular Mechanics noted there is also a bunker-buster version of CrashPAD called “Shredder.” But even with this weapon there’s a level of unpredictability that makes the calculus for their use unfavorable. When neutralizing chemical weapons, there’s no room for error.
“It could easily be argued that the U.S., should they be the ones to pull the trigger, are the ones responsible for the release of chemical agent all over Syria — a decision that will not play well in the Middle East, Russia and in the international Court of Human Rights,” Winfield said.
Further complicating America’s planning, there have been reports that Iran has sent soldiers to guard Assad’s chemical facilities. In striking these bases, the United States risks fraying already tenuous American-Iranian relations.
Which weapons, where?
Also, the Assad regime been moving its chemical stockpile around the country. In July last year, for example, the Syrian army evacuated an argosy of chemical agents from a depot near Homs and then to an undisclosed location.
Washington is not particularly certain which chemicals are at which bases—and that makes it hard to plan a neutralizing raid. Sarin gas, for instance, is much more volatile than VX gas, meaning VX gas contaminates an area for a longer period of time and more caution must be taken to avoid spreading it.
Then there’s the possibility that Assad is using chemical agents the U.S. doesn’t even know about. Dan Kaszeta, author of “CBRN and Hazmat Incidents at Major Public Events: Planning and Response,” said that the recent chem strike in Damascus was not sarin, as widely believed, but a “toxic industrial chemical,” or TIC. If Kaszeta is right, these TICs could also react to U.S. neutralizing tactics in unpredictable ways.
The most secure way to dispose of the weapons and avoid civilian deaths is also the least popular with the Obama administration: boots on the ground. A Pentagon study last year estimated that 75,000 U.S. troops would be needed to ensure the safe capture of Assad’s chemical weapons.
“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,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter to Michigan Sen. Carl Levin. “Thousands of Special Operations Forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month.”
But with only nine percent of Americans in favor of intervention, it seems unlikely that Obama will send in ground forces. In deploying U.S. troops, Obama could be substituting civilian casualties for American ones.
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