An air campaign alone would be unlikely to solve the challenge. While
the U.S. can destroy deeply buried targets, Charles Blair--senior
fellow for state and non-state threats at Federation of American
Scientists--said that "no country has the burrowing capability, even
with nuclear weapons, to destroy very deep targets without creating an
enormous radioactive fallout cloud." Even strikes on targets above
ground would risk spreading the agent. These strikes, Blair said, would
cause an "unacceptably high number of agents still in existence and
Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of
International Studies' James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies,
outlined a smaller-scale military option. Surveillance assets might
observe an empty truck convoy approaching one of the chemical sites,
Spector said. A targeted operation with drone strikes or even
special-forces troops could disrupt this activity.
The U.S. could also train its Arab League partners to secure the
sites if more widespread devolution occurs. Spector said that June's
Eager Lion 12 exercise in Jordan brought together 19 nations to work on
various contingencies, including the possibility that chemical weapons
could be taken across Syria's borders.
However, if agents are already walking away, it's too late for the
best possible outcome, Blair said. As rebels (or terrorists) try to
figure out how to use or even transport the different agents, there
could be potentially significant casualties, Blair said. Fear alone of
loose chemical weapons could spark widespread panic and devastate the
In the meantime, Spector argues the U.S. should encourage the sites'
trained custodians--who may be contemplating defection--to remain in
place. "You want to advise them that if they stick to their mission of
protecting these sites ... that they will be treated in a special
category that will get some protection," Spector said, calling on
Washington to advise the Syrian opposition to get this message out.
However, Syria's opposition is still disorganized, and the West retains a
lingering distrust of opposition groups with possible extremist ties.
The recent past offers some tough lessons. Libya's arsenal pales in
comparison to Syria's sophisticated conventional weapons systems, but
the U.S. allocated some $40 million for American and European
specialists to clear the roughly 20,000 surface-to-air missiles and
other weapons believed to be within that country. But the Libya mission
launched after the violence and NATO bombing campaign left sites open to
looting. The U.S. still cannot account for all the weapons thought to
be missing. Loose weapons from Libya are believed to be partly
responsible for rising violence in nearby Mali, where the democratically
elected president was overthrown in a March coup.