What to Bomb in Syria -- and Why
Sen. John McCain, when asked about President Barack Obama's plan to punish the Syrian regime for alleged use of chemical weapons against its citizens, rightly emphasized that any action should have "lasting impact." Yet Assad's back is to the wall; he may feel there is nothing to lose by fighting with any and all resources at his disposal, even weapons of mass destruction. Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, and Assad's targets for chemical WMD deployment seem to be growing in number and deadliness.
While horrifying, Assad's use of chemical weapons against the Syrian population on multiple occasions over the past two years is in line with his practice of killing citizens who aid or abet opponents. The Syrian military's preferred tactic has been to bomb towns and neighborhoods with conventional weapons and occasionally WMD, then go in with tanks and infantry to root out remaining opposition. Unleashing chemical weapons upon residents of northwest Damascus on August 21 followed this pattern. When the military and its shabbiha auxillaries are pushed back to their bases, they switch tactics -- lobbing munitions into the midst not only of rebel forces as diverse as the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda-affiliates, but also of nearby civilians. Those bases are usually resupplied by helicopter, unless there are runways to land fixed-wing aircraft.
So, when it comes to punishing Assad, choosing sites whose obliteration will most seriously degrade the Syrian regime's ability to further prolong civil war could save thousands of innocent lives. Removing key military capabilities also may forestall American and European boots on the ground amidst factions that mistrust each other politically, ethnically and religiously.
Destroying Syria's chemical weapons would appear to be the most effective and conflagration-neutral action. It would put all factions on a more equal footing, plus have the lasting impact of removing those WMD from use against combatants and civilians alike. The tactical dilemmas, however, are insufficient knowledge of locations like al-Rastan, Hama, Aleppo, Palmyra (Tadmur), Damascus and al-Muharram, and of storage conditions to ensure total destruction of chemical precursors and assembled warheads. After all, it is essential to prevent some from being salvaged and reused by Assad's troops or by his opponents, including Islamist fighters who abhor the West. Moreover, less-than-precise strikes against chemical WMD facilities could release toxins into the air, soil and water -- harming the very people U.S. actions seek to protect.
In the absence of completely eliminating Assad's chemical WMD capability, what sites could the U.S. and its partners remove to ensure lasting impact?
One set of possible targets are key command and control locations such as the hills around Damascus on which the presidential palace, the Assad family palace and Fourth Brigade's headquarters -- all connected by tunnels -- are located. Taking out those installations and the communications grid linked to them would greatly reduce the ability of Assad and his inner circle of commanders to direct forces still loyal to them across Syria. Yet, given the deeply-recessed construction of the regime's nerve-center, those locations between Qatana to al-Ruhhaybah would have to be pulverized by bunker-busting aerial bombardments.
Another set of targets should be air force bases. Air power has been Assad's key to control of the country. He uses fixed and rotary wing aircraft to resupply troops under siege. Short lengths of oil pipeline filled with shrapnel and explosives are manually pushed out of planes and helicopters onto populated areas. Assad continues to attack populations using Scud, North Korean SS21, and Iranian Fateh 110 missiles, launched from air bases at Jandar and Dumayr. Destroying runways, planes, helicopters, missile launchers and rockets would seriously degrade Assad's ability to project destructive power including chemical, and possibly nuclear and biological WMD.
Three air bases at Kwers (Rasin al-Aboud), Aleppo International and Deir al-Zor are located in territory highly contested between regime and rebels forces. By destroying these airbases, aircraft, and associated infrastructure, the U.S. could sever Assad's ability to resupply his troops there. So strategically important, population-dense areas will be removed from the combat arena quickly. Ten other military airports, at Shayrat, Hama, Khalkhalah, Marj Ruhayyil, al-Nasiriyah, Sayqal, Tha‘lah (Suwayda), Qamishli, Palmyra and Qabr al-Sitt are still in regime hands. Although now playing only secondary roles, often as helicopter stations, their demolition would further weaken Assad's ability to inflict improvised bombardments upon civilians.
In order to extinguish the Syrian regime's control of airspace and its ability to provide troop and munition reinforcements, however, six major aerial transportation hubs must be put out of service. Located at Dumayr, Mezzeh, al-Qusayr (al-Daba), Bassel al-Assad International, Damascus International and Tiyas (Tayfoor), those military and civilian sites still receive resupply planes from Iran and Russia and in turn reship materials to government forces throughout the country. If these six locations were destroyed or at least seriously degraded, Assad's allies would no longer be able to keep his regime armed.
Additionally, American bombs should assist rebel forces in cutting off roads and collapsing bridges linking the regime's centers to Lebanon so that Hezbollah can no longer come to Assad's aid with men and arms. The same type of action is necessary to disconnect ground resupply lines leading from Syria's Mediterranean ports like al-Ladiqiyah (Lattakia), Baniyas and Tartus to military bases and command centers at Kwers, Aleppo, Deir al-Zor, Dumayr, Tiyas and even the Assad family's own safe houses in Damascus.
Carefully chosen U.S. strikes would ensure not only complete degradation of Bashar al-Assad's military might, but also of his political stature among even his staunchest supporters. The net result may cut short the civil war by permitting rebel troops to overrun regime strongholds swiftly and with fewer casualties all around. Intervention might even compel Assad to engage seriously in peace talks and bargain for a political solution. Unfortunately, "limited, tailored" U.S. involvement, as President Obama envisions, is less likely to help unite opposition groups, let alone convince the Sunni Islamist-minded among them to abjure sectarian revenge and work with other groups for a united, democratic Syria. So the bloodbath there will not end anytime soon.