The website has picked up a lot of non-specialist traffic over the past week, so this won’t be news to a lot of you… The recent speech be John Kerry has generated a lot of excitement over the possibility of some kind of action. In broad terms this is good, inaction over what is now universally agreed was a chemical attack (though the agent and actor still has some speculation) is a ‘very bad thing.’ Yet what happens next is less obvious. Shall we take the issue of airstrikes, or cruise missiles, let us say, for sake of argument, that they get to their target, what happens to the agent? In the ideal world of the tub-thumpers it is destroyed, job done. Sadly real life CBRN doesn’t work that way, what is more likely is that the Syrians get a ‘sub-optimal chemical release,’ ie Western activity releases an enormous plume which affects many square kilometres. Chemical agents are not so easily destroyed, the work of the Chemical Munitions Agency (CMA) in the US and the demilitarisation work in Russia shows that this is a lengthy process that needs careful calculation, not a paveway. Again, the flip answer is to say, ‘So what? They shouldn’t have had them in the first place!’ I am not sure that that defence stacks up in a court of law. It could easily be argued that the US, should they be the ones to pull the trigger, are the ones responsible for the release of chemical agent all over Syria - a decision that will not play well in the Middle East, Russia and in the International Court of Human Rights. While the US might not be as worried about the latter it does gives greater evidence of ‘does not play well with others.’ Another alternative would be some kind of themobaric munition, a ‘daisy cutter,’ again quite outside of the difficulty of dropping this on target it also raises the problem of dispersing the agent, rather than entirely destroying it, and potentially even pyrolising it. Jan Medema has written in the magazine previously on his theory that a burn pit in Dugway was responsible for the death of the sheep in Skull Valley (FAS link to the incident here), which goes to show some of the problems inherent in poor disposal. The final airdropped solution would be a small tactical nuke, this would, most likely, solve the problem entirely, but it would also cause some far, far bigger ones. This need for an airdropped solution to CWA is one that the USAF, among others, has been studying for years, and has yet to come up with an effective solution.
The other solution has already been discussed right at the start, the need to put troops in to make the munitions ‘safe.’ The estimate then was that it would require 75,000 troops to secure them ((here) and that number of troops Nato, Jordan and the US would find politically impossible.
This is not to say that there will not be airstrikes, just that they will have to be at different parts of the military machine rather than the agent itself. Exactly what that might look like is difficult to speculate, traditional targets - C2 nodes, road and rail network etc - are obvious, but there may well be other, more subtle parts of the capability that can be dealt with. I would suggest that having come to the brink that now would be the time for Russia to take Assad under its wing and start talking about a ‘third way,’ leaving with dignity and some form of negotiated solution. Whether that can be done in a time frame that the hawks will approve of is another matter.