Why you can’t just bomb Syria’s WMD into oblivion

If Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are such a worry, why can’t the U.S. — or NATO or Israel — simply bomb them and be done? After all, last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "We plan for a number of contingencies and we have planned for a number of contingencies there," including what ...

PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages
PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages
PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages

If Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are such a worry, why can't the U.S. -- or NATO or Israel -- simply bomb them and be done?

After all, last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "We plan for a number of contingencies and we have planned for a number of contingencies there," including what to do about the stockpiles. Panetta said the U.S. is monitoring them in coordination with Turkey and Jordan, which share borders with Syria across which the weapons could be smuggled. "We've had -- we've been in discussions with Israel, as well, to determine what -- you know, what steps need to be taken to ensure that those sites are secure and maintained so that those weapons don't fall into the wrong hands."

Secured and maintained, sure. But bombing them? Of course, it's not that simple. There is no clean way to bomb such sites, not entirely. Ask the Pentagon why and the answer is, "We do not comment on intelligence matters," said Lt. Col. Jack Miller, a Defense Department spokesman on Middle East policy.

If Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpiles are such a worry, why can’t the U.S. — or NATO or Israel — simply bomb them and be done?

After all, last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "We plan for a number of contingencies and we have planned for a number of contingencies there," including what to do about the stockpiles. Panetta said the U.S. is monitoring them in coordination with Turkey and Jordan, which share borders with Syria across which the weapons could be smuggled. "We’ve had — we’ve been in discussions with Israel, as well, to determine what — you know, what steps need to be taken to ensure that those sites are secure and maintained so that those weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands."

Secured and maintained, sure. But bombing them? Of course, it’s not that simple. There is no clean way to bomb such sites, not entirely. Ask the Pentagon why and the answer is, "We do not comment on intelligence matters," said Lt. Col. Jack Miller, a Defense Department spokesman on Middle East policy.

But here’s why, defense officials privately concede: Even if the Pentagon knew the targets, knew that they contained biological or chemical weapons, knew which specific agents were hidden at each site, had the right vehicles and ordinance to penetrate air defenses and fortifications, determined the agents were sufficiently away from populations and in calm wind conditions, determined their use or insecurity was imminent and that there was a high-probability that all of those factors were correct — well, it’s not that simple.

"If you put on a bomb that busts a bunker with success, it’s pretty sure that if it’s a biological container I think it would be a high-probably that all biological agents would be killed by the blast — or the heat," said Raymond A. Zilinskas, director of the Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"Chemical agents are different, they don’t destroy that easily."

Zilinskas, who is in Washington for a conference on the use of biological weapons at National Defense University, walked The E-Ring through the possibilities and probabilities that Pentagon planners must weigh before launching any strikes on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction stockpiles.

While Zilinskas said he has little intelligence insight into Syria’s actual stockpiles, but there is consensus that it’s unlikely Syria possess biological weapons.

"To get a military-useful biological weapon is really a big deal," he said.

Chemical weapons are another story. Whether a bombing resulted in "50 percent destruction or 99 percent destruction" of a potential site, the attack still produces an ash plume that picks up some of the agent and spreads it across the surrounding area, and that’s a major problem.

"What if you have wind?" he asked. Or what if the stockpile is near a city.

And it depends on the chemical agent. Syria is believed to possess sarin and mustard. Sarin is probably 1,000 times deadlier than mustard, but is also "highly volatile," meaning it degrades into harmless components. "So, that would be gone very quickly."

"Mustard is much more difficult to destroy," Zilinskas said. "It is not as effective as sarin, as far as killing people, but it certainly could cause a lot of damage. And it’s persistent."

Mustard gas – the same stuff used in World War I — creates a major logistical burden for the entire area in which it is deployed. The area of an attack on a depot could have to be cordoned off into a red zone and a green zone, with doctors and nurses decontaminating people moving from one to the next.

"Their clothing is going to be contaminated, their skin," he explained. In short, there is no clean way to do it, and the decontamination is not much easier to handle.

The more important factors to consider before a strike on chemical sites, he said, are much the same for any strike. And we’ve had this debate before, Zilinskas said, in deciding how to strike Iraq’s WMD sites. Planners would need to know with high-probability whether the U.S. had detected all of the targets, or only some. Can they be destroyed? Are they surface bunkers, like in Iraq, or are some underground, or in the middle of population centers? Do they contain only chemical agents or some mixture of items including conventional weapons, which if exploded could contaminate local conditions? Finally, can air defenses be penetrated?

It’s an entirely different equation if intelligence detects Syria rolling out chemical warheads on Scud missiles, or using them in rockets or artillery.

"We would probably have selected-targeting that’s going to happen," Zilinskas said, should U.S. or allied forces decide to strike. "I don’t think it’s going to be a complete effort to destroy them all."

In the Pentagon, Miller laid out DOD’s position: "Syria has stated that its chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control. We have made it very clear, the Assad regime has a responsibility to secure these weapons, and the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fail to meet that obligation."

When Panetta was last month asked if securing Syria’s chemical and biological sites would involve the U.S. military, however, he replied, "Not at this point."

That was one month ago.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected in Turkey next week to discuss Syria. The E-Ring will keep you apprised.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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