Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Syrian Crisis and the Politics of Intervention

The United States has been debating whether to intervene militarily in the Levant following the suspected use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces in August. It needs to be seen whether a war-weary American people would back their government to undertake another unilateral military adventure where the military and/or political objectives are blurred. This post examines the politico-military aspects of a possible military intervention.

The fact is "or seems to be" that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian Army against its own citizens in the country’s ongoing civil war. The Russians have rejected the claim that the Syrian forces used chemical weapons.

Allegations of use of chemical weapons first emerged on 23rd December 2012 when it was reported that a gas attack killed seven civilians in the rebel-held al-Bayyada neighbourhood of Homs. In March and April 2013 there were unconfirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. According to U.S. intelligence assessments, in the end of April 2013, the Syrian government had probably used Sarin gas.

On 5 August, another chemical attack by the Syrian army was reported by the opposition, who documented the injured with video footage. The activists claim up to 400 people were affected by the attack in Adra and Houma of the Damascus suburbs.

On 21 August, Syrian activists reported that Syrian government forces struck at Jobar, Zamalka, 'Ain Tirma, and Hazzah in the Eastern Ghouta region with chemical weapons. At least 635 people were killed in a nerce gas attack. On 25 August, the Syrian government agreed to allow UN investigators to visit the site of the attacks. On 26 August the inspectors reached some sites, but after an hour and a half, were ordered by the Syrian government to return due to 'safety concerns', and the inspectors could not reach the six main sites. Notwithstanding the restraint placed and sniper attacks on the UN team, it is learnt that the inspectors had gathered valuable evidence.

Besides chemical weapons, Syrian government forces have been accused of using cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons (also known as fuel air bombs) during the civil war. 

Estimates of Syria's Chemical Weapons' Arsenal
  • The CIA believes Syria has had a chemical weapons programme "for years and already has a stockpile of CW agents which can be delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"
  • Syria is believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent
  • The CIA also believes that Syria has attempted to develop more toxic and more persistent nerve agents, such as VX gas
  • A report citing Turkish, Arab and Western intelligence agencies put Syria's stockpile at approximately 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, stored in 50 towns and cities
  • Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

According to the Obama administration the Syrian military fired rockets carrying warheads filled with sarin, a liquid nerve agent that vaporizes into a deadly mist that human skin can quickly absorb. The toxin throws nerves and muscles all over the body into overdrive, resulting in lung paralysis and death. The pupils of victims are often tiny because the iris, a muscle, contracts so much.

Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to have told Congress that the United States believed the Syrian military was responsible for the attack, and in classified briefings officials have pointed to Unit 450, which controls Syrian chemical weapons.

The US has been pushing for a military strike in Syria in response to the supposed chemical weapons attack in August. President Obama set out clearly defined objectives of the proposed military operation against Syria. The goal according to the President would be “to hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, to deter this kind of behavior and to degrade their capacity to carry it out.” Mr. Obama said a "limited" strike was needed to degrade President Bashar al-Assad's capabilities in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack. According to Secretary of State John Kerry that there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria and that President Obama was "not asking America to go to war". The US government has made no reference to a regime change in Damascus and that it (the US) did not intend to commit ground forces for the so-called limited strike.

Questions that need to be asked are how the US intends to target chemical weapons facilities, considering the fact some elements of the chemical weapons complex may be based in underground shelters and much of the facilities are located in the close proximity of populated areas.

Attacking such sites with conventional warheads or bombs is fraught with risk as apart from causing considerable damage it could also open up chemical weapons stocks to the air, disperse them over a large area, and potentially cause large numbers of civilian casualties. The US cannot in the process of degrading Syrian army capabilities, be seen to be responsible for causing as much Syrian civilian casualties as has already been caused by the government forces.

According to BBC’s Jonathan Marcus, for years the United States has been seeking to develop warheads that could be used to destroy chemical weapons stocks without the dangers described above.

So-called "Agent Defeat Weapons" are probably available to US commanders. They operate in various ways but the essential feature is intense heat - it is like a super-incendiary bomb - that destroys the chemical or biological agent in situ. 

The temperatures needed are dramatically high, within the range of 1,200C to over 1,500C.

Though some experts suggest that these highest temperatures would be required to destroy biological material, chemical weapons like the nerve agent VX for example would be destroyed at the lower end of the range.

The exact status of these munitions in the US arsenal is uncertain. One system is known as "crash pad" - a high-temperature incendiary weapon. Another is called the Passive Attack Weapon or PAW which depends upon the kinetic energy of a mass of steel or tungsten rods to produce the necessary heat. 

The close proximity of Syrian facilities to civilian areas may deter the US military planners in going ahead with a full fledged air strike.  Contrary to the statements made by the officials of the US Administration before the Congress that no ground troops would be involved, US may have to carry out operations through its Special Forces in order to effectively destroy or render useless Assad's chemical weapons' arsenal. This would mean a prolonged conflict, longer than the duration authorised by Congress. 

Another aspect that needs to be considered is a retaliatory strike on US bases in the Middle East/Gulf region or even the US mainland by groups like the Hezbollah. A terror strike by Hezbollah against US or its interests or even against Israel could very well expand the scope and duration of the conflict. While Iran may not intervene directly in response to US strikes, there is every possibility of the intervention escalating into a regional conflagration. Syria, it is feared, is also in possession of biological weapons which was acknowledged by its foreign ministry spokesman in June 2012. Responding to Western reports about Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, the spokesman said in a televised interview that the regime would never use “any chemical and biological weapons” inside Syria. He said the Syrian military was safeguarding “all stocks of these weapons.” There is a high probability that Syria may retaliate with bio-weapons in response to US military strikes. The Obama Administration and the US military need to weigh in these risks before intervening.

A sharply divided Senate committee voted on 4th September to give President Obama limited authority to use force against Syria, the first step in what remains a treacherous path for Mr. Obama to win Congressional approval for a military attack.

The resolution would limit strikes against Syrian forces to a period of 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more days after consultation with Congress, and it would block the use of American ground troops. 

The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria.

After securing Congress approval for a military operation, the US government and military still have the arduous task of calibrating the scale and scope of the attack itself to ensure that it delivers the necessary warning while not totally overturning the situation on the ground.

[Source: BBC Reports and Wikipedia]


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

Mighty interesting - especially the Agent Defeat or "crash-pad" weapons.

It seems part of US strategy is to destroy or disable Syrian armed forces' weapons that are capable of projecting CW. That includes missile launchers, artillery and aircraft (jets, prop-driven and helicopters). Also disabling airfields and air defences (inc S-300s).

There are a whole raft of uncertainties that may come into play after a US-French strike, including:

- international and home-grown terrorist reactions, in the region or anywhere in the West, anytime, even months-years after strikes on Syria.

- Hezbollah missiles aimed at Israel, Jordan and Turkey, and

- Syrian use of anti-shipping missiles against tankers which would cause a large spike in world oil prices.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
Thanks for your valuable comments.

I am not sure of what the US intends to do after the first few rounds of air strikes. How are the Western forces going to secure/destroy/disable the CW arsenal? There is a report which says that around 75,000 troops would be required to secure the CWs. If that be true, even partially, then are the US/French troops going to land in Syria? Is Obama pushing US into a conflict that it does not want? Only US war strategy and time will decide the future course of the conflict.

Pete said...

Hi Kumar

Yes dealing with CW by using UN troops in blue or Western troops does involve the highly dangerous "boots on the ground" scenario.

Use of suicide truck bombs is already re-emerging in Syria. And that is by extremist anti-Assad forces. Such extremists may reroute their attention away from fighting Assad to fighting the more traditional enemy "infidel" Western invaders.