Such differences would make any military intervention in Syria a much riskier and potentially costly exercise. Pentagon officials estimate that it could require more than 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria’s chemical warfare facilities, according to CNN. It is clear that even such a limited intervention, much less a full-blown humanitarian intervention launched amid a civil war, would be an enormously costly and risky enterprise.
While the potential for hazardous materials being smuggled out of the country is a legitimate concern, the risks associated with deploying U.S. troops inside Syria currently are greater. There are prudent measures that the U.S. can take to mitigate the risk that hazardous materials will “leak” out of the country without putting U.S. boots on the ground.
A Prudent U.S. Policy
Washington should privately warn the Assad regime not to use its chemical weapons and that such a move will trigger much greater U.S. support, possibly including arms, for the opposition. This declaration should be a private warning, because that would increase the chances that the Assad regime might take heed, whereas a public warning could lead it to react provocatively to show it is standing up to the U.S. The message could be delivered through Syria’s U.N. ambassador.
Washington separately should make it clear to all Syrian opposition groups that they will be held responsible for any chemical weapons, radioactive materials, or MANPADS that fall into their hands. They should know that they will be rewarded if they turn these over to the U.S. or allied governments and punished if they retain them or pass them on to terrorists.
The U.S., its allies, and the “Friends of Syria” contact group should establish an intelligence-sharing mechanism to monitor Syrian WMD sites and track the movement of loose weapons in an effort to intercept them before they can be transferred to terrorist groups. The United States is already using satellite intelligence and drones to monitor Syrian military activities and should build up its intelligence-gathering network inside Syria. Other countries may be able to contribute important human intelligence that the U.S. lacks.
It is especially important to coordinate counter-proliferation and counterterrorism efforts with Syria’s neighbors to prevent terrorist groups or smugglers from moving dangerous weapons out of the country. Turkey, which has extensive ties with the Syrian opposition, can play a critical role. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq could also make important contributions in detecting and intercepting weapons leaking out of Syria. Particular attention should be paid to preventing them from being transferred to Hezbollah and Iran or falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. Washington should also develop contingency plans with these countries and the Syrian opposition to prepare a disaster response plan for the possible use or accidental detonation of chemical or radiological weapons.
Rapid-Response Plans Needed
Because air strikes against chemical weapons facilities could release toxic plumes that would threaten nearby civilians, bombing would be a desperate and dangerous means to prevent proliferation. If the U.S. receives actionable intelligence that terrorists have obtained or are about to obtain WMD materials, then it should launch a targeted CIA or military operation, if practical. For example, the Pentagon should prepare to act on contingency plans for the rapid insertion of Special Forces personnel to secure, remove, or disable hazardous materials that might fall into terrorist hands.
The U.S. government should also plan to help a Syrian successor government secure, destroy, and disable the Assad regime’s WMD stockpile and production facilities, along with loose conventional weapons such as MANPADS.