The Pentagon’s most likely means of attacking Syria will not degrade or deter the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and could drag the U.S. more deeply into Syria’s civil war, retired military officers and analysts say.
Five Navy destroyers armed with about 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in anticipation of a limited attack on Syrian military sites. Obama administration officials have said the attack’s goal would be to punish the Syrian regime for the Aug. 21 chemical attack on civilians, not to topple President Bashar Assad.
Most cruise missiles have no “bunker busting” capabilities and are less effective against mobile targets, military analysts note. And Pentagon officials have said that chemical weapons stockpiles would not be targeted to avoid the inadvertent release of poisonous gas.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who planned the air attack phase of 1991’s Desert Storm operation against Iraq, noted the limited sites in Syria that could be targeted effectively by cruise missiles.
“There’s an infinite number of launchers and ways to deliver chemical weapons. These can be delivered by rockets of which they have thousands, and artillery shells of which they have thousands. All of this has already been dispersed in multiple hidden locations, so you’re not going to have any impact on [Mr. Assad‘s] means to apply these weapons,” said Gen. Deptula, who directed thousands of air attacks on Iraq for 43 days in 1991.
“You’re not going to get his attention with a token strike with a handful of cruise missiles on a bunch of launchers. I mean, that’s laughable,” Gen. Deptula said. “Assad and his military have so many different means of delivering these weapons, that a strike with a bunch of cruise missiles, even if it’s in the hundreds, is not going to make a significant impact.”
Syria is believed to possess several hundred short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can carry chemical warheads, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.
In addition, the Assad regime has other ways to deliver chemical payloads, including several thousand aerial bombs, cruise missiles, fighter bombers, multiple rocket launchers and artillery tubes, according to Globalsecurity.org.
A limited attack would not eliminate the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons and probably would not deter its use of such weapons, especially since the Obama administration has said it does not want to get involved in a protracted conflict with U.S. boots on the ground, analysts say.
“The administration is hoping that by degrading those capabilities, you deter Assad from using them again in the future. You want to change his decision calculus so that he chooses not to use them in the future. The problem with that is that we really don’t know why he chose to use the chemical weapons in that attack on Aug. 21,” said Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security.
“If it was seen by Assad and his leadership as something that was necessary for the regime to survive, that you couldn’t use other weapons to do that, and that activity had to be done, then no matter what we do, it will have no effect on his future calculations,” Ms. Bensahel said. “It’s very hard to know what will deter him in the future.”
If the Assad regime again uses chemical weapons, “the U.S. is going to be compelled to respond again at a more extensive level, and the more extensively you intervene, the greater the risk is of getting drawn into one side of the civil war, even if that is not your objective,” she said.
“U.S. credibility could also be at stake if we do something and it’s seen as not being very effective. We can undermine our credibility that way, too,” Ms. Bensahel said.
President Obama last week said he will seek congressional approval for launching a limited military operation against the Assad regime for its Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 Syrians.
Military officials say the delay “complicates issues” to some degree, such as by allowing Assad forces to relocate military assets and better prepare for strikes. But they say the risks are manageable.