The Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.
The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said.
As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the “precursor” chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.
Chemical weapons on the battlefield against a well equipped military force are more about hindering that force than killing it. With as little as 15 minutes warning, most military forces can adopt sufficient protective measures to prevent most casualties. The need to decontaminate personnel and equipment, however, would reduce the unit effectiveness greatly, however.
But a nerve agent attack against a civilian (or insurgent) population would be devastating. In addition to large scale prompt casualties, large swaths of land would contaminated and uninhabitable for extended periods of time. Simply retrieving any people that survive the initial attack would be a great challenge, as the risk of contaminating them, their rescuers, or even any save haven survivors are taken to are very high.
Politicians, most especially President Obama, have issued statements that the use of chemicals weapons is totally unacceptable, a red line event.
But what are our options here? Truth be told, I don’t think we really have any good ones.
We can take no action at all. With a public increasingly weary of US intervention in the Middle East, that’s a fairly popular option. But doing so leaves us with no influence over the future shape of Syria. Further, it may embolden our enemies, who would think us weak and without the nerve to act.
We can intervene now, either through airpower, or limited support to insurgent groups. That may be enough to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. But it is not without its own risks. Any strike on weapons storage may well release the very agents whose use we aim to prevent. Or it may force the Assad regime into “use ’em or lose ’em” mindset. And frankly, we don’t really know that any coalition of anti-regime forces would be a better partner in the region than the current regime.
Finally, we can bide our time and only intervene if the Assad regime does in fact use chemical weapons. In fact, to some extent, if Assad does use chemical weapons, a failure to relentlessly pursue him personally, and kill him will only encourage other tinpot dictators to acquire and use chemical weapons, either against their own fractious populations, or nearby problematic neighbors. But as the hunts for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden showed, tracking down one man can be a lengthy proposition.
I find none of these options appealing. Frankly, I don’t see a single good path for the US to take.
I’m still debating the wisdom of our intervention in Libya. My criticisms of that campaign were not really about the choice to intervene, but rather the domestic politics of how President Obama did so.
Part of me thinks that bombing the crap out of Assad is a good idea, just on general principle. The other part of me thinks that as long as it’s just Arabs killing Arabs, have at it.
What say you? What should we do, and when?