Friday, August 31, 2012

Syria: Options for U.S. Invasion, Securing Chemical Weapons

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 24 August 2012.

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.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

We Can Eliminate Chemical Weapons

This post originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 17 August, 2012.

The Syrian conflict has caused great international concern with daily reports of fighting. The humanitarian situation is worsening with Syrians in major cities left without medicine, food, or water. To add to the difficulty, an Assad spokesman recently discussed the possibility that Syria’s sizable chemical weapons stockpile could be used on any outside invasion force, though asserting they would not be used on Syrians. The questions lingering about Syria’s chemical weapons show why international weapons control regimes are important. The world needs to pay more attention to chemical weapons.

Among weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons have long been the most prominent in international concern. Along with the U.S., there are eight states armed with nuclear weapons, Israel likely an undeclared ninth. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), regulated by the IAEA, is the central international agreement governing nuclear weapons. Parties agree not to acquire nuclear weapons, to eventually pursue nuclear disarmament, and to use nuclear technology peacefully. The NPT became effective in 1970, some forty years ago, and it was predicted then that there would be as many as 30 nuclear states by now.

It has been estimated that as many as forty states have the knowledge to develop nuclear capability. Yet only four new states have joined the nuclear club. None are members of the NPT. The U.S. still possesses the most active nuclear weapons, but the bilateral New START with Russia promises to make progress toward the zero goal of the NPT. Despite problems with North Korea and ongoing multiparty talks with Iran on its nuclear program, the NPT and bilateral agreements on nuclear weapons reduction have gone a long way in slowing nuclear proliferation.

The outlook is not as positive with chemical weapons. It is thought that as many as seventeen states currently possess offensive chemical weapons capability. Despite chemical weapon use as early as WWI, the Convention on Chemical Weapons (CWC), regulated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was only implemented in 1997. Nuclear weapons have not been used offensively since 1945, but chemical weapons have been used offensively in the Middle East as recently as the 1980’s.

Chemical weapons are also much easier to develop than nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons require more advanced technical knowledge and enrichment of nuclear material and the components required to build a bomb create a larger identifiable footprint. An advanced chemistry degree and common chemical plants are all that is necessary. Deadly nerve agents are made from phosphates that are readily available throughout the world and are widely used in agricultural production.

Concerns about chemical weapons aren’t limited to Syria. North Korea and Myanmar, non-CWC states, are suspected of possessing them. Evidence suggests non-member Israel may have them as well. Iran and China are accused of having clandestine programs, despite being parties to the CWC. There have also been successes. Albania, South Korea, and India have completely eliminated their stores. The U.S. has destroyed 90% of its stockpile. Russia, Serbia, and Libya are more than halfway complete. America, Britain, and other nations have contributed millions to overseas programs to assist other nations in eliminating their stockpiles.

The world needs to do more to eradicate chemical weapons. If similar focus is placed on them as on nuclear weapons, we can eliminate known stockpiles in member states by the end of the decade. This is something we can only dream of with nuclear weapons. International weapons control regimes work. The successes of the NPT and bilateral nuclear agreements show that the Chemical Weapons Convention can rid the world of these terrible and dangerous weapons of mass destruction.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lightly Arming Syrian Opposition U.S.' Best Option

This article appeared on the Truman Doctrine and The Diplomat in August 2012.

The media presents daily reports of the escalating violence in Syria. There have been confirmed reports of mass executions by the regime. Women are being raped and men are disappearing.

Thousands of civilians and combatants are dying from shelling and firefights every day. The cities of Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo, among others, stand in ruins. Russia and China continue to block UN action in the Security Council. Thus far in the Arab uprisings, America has taken the successful approach of developing the situation from the outside to ensure the revolutions maintain their own national character. The threat of chemical weapons makes any ground intervention more difficult. America should build on past success and break the Syria stalemate by arming the Syrian opposition with anti-tank weaponry and non-lethal supplies.

It is well-known the Assad regime possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. They’ve been manufacturing them domestically for decades. A regime spokesman stated chemical weapons could be used against any outside invasion force, though the statement was later walked back. Even for well-equipped and trained militaries such as America’s, conducting operations in a lethal nerve agent environment multiplies the difficulty level and will greatly increase casualties in ground combat. An invasion of Syria is a much more difficult prospect than some imagine.

The same regime spokesman asserted Syria would not use chemical weapons on their own people, no matter the situation. Contaminating large swathes of countryside, effective when necessary against outside invasions, is undesirable domestically. It can present short and long-term contamination hazards for people, animals, crops, and water, not to mention the international mores it would break. Outside of Saddam Hussein, even brutal dictators have hesitated to use these weapons. The Syrian regime using nerve agents could lead to evaporation of Russian or Chinese support.

Arming the Syrian opposition is a better option. The Assad regime has shown no hesitation in using artillery and armor against the Syrian people. Equipping Syrian rebels with light anti-tank weapons such as RPG-7s will allow them to combat the regime’s T-55 and T-72 tanks. RPG-7s and lighter anti-tank weaponry are not capable of penetrating U.S. M1 Abrams tanks.

The Middle East is already awash in such weaponry so America wouldn’t be introducing anything new. Getting them quickly and directly into the hands of Syrian resistance fighters will bring the timely turning point needed to end the violence. Keeping an eye on the future after the Assad regime falls, America should stop short of providing small-arms weaponry, such as machine guns which may be used in the turmoil after the regime falls.

The U.S. should provide the opposition with non-lethal effects as well. Providing radio and other equipment to opposition commanders will allow them to coordinate their forces locally and nationally. Medical and food supplies are vital as well as the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. Providing such supplies directly to Syrians already on the ground will get them closer to those who need them as America and its allies develop a coordinated response to the humanitarian situation following the fighting.

Providing light anti-tank weaponry and other non-lethal support for the opposition combined with continued international diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime, followed by a coordinated international humanitarian response to the aftermath, is America’s best course to end the Syria stalemate.