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Western Options to Respond to the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

Commentary, 28 August 2013
Middle East and North Africa
Western governments are now discussing when, not whether to attack Syria after reported use of chemical weapons. What would be the scope of any intervention mission, and what would be the targets?

Western governments are now discussing when, not whether to attack Syria after reported use of chemical weapons. What would be the scope of any intervention mission, and what would be the targets?

Free Syria Army FlagThe United States, Britain, France and Turkey are seriously considering a military response to the recent attacks on civilians by chemical weapons in Syria.   Any 'Western' action is most unlikely to include the deployment of forces on the ground because of lack of national political support.  It is difficult to envisage some sort of substantial land raid that would allow for early extraction of these forces without the risk of embroilment.  That is not to say that Special Force operations are not a possibility bearing in mind that a principal role of these forces is reconnaissance.  Any such operations would be discreet and presumably the intention would be for them to be unattributable.

Coercive military action by 'Western' nations would therefore be limited to air attack from the air. Fixed wing air attack would need to be restricted initially to longer range missiles outside the range of Syrian air defences. A particular problem apart from loss of life or aircrew is their capture which could be hugely exploited by the original perpetrators. Similarly Special Forces attacks could result in capture and subsequent demeaning treatment.  Cruise and other long range missiles are the obvious weapon for initial attack delivered by submarines, surface vessels and aircraft.

Possible Targets

What would the targets be? The purposes of the attacks would be deterrent and this could be at two levels:  first, to prevent further use of chemical weapons n Syria by these perpetrators; and secondly, to enforce international law and values to deter further perpetration whether in the context of Syria or elsewhere by other protagonists  in the short, medium or long term.

Deterrent attacks could on the one hand be punitive, to inflict harm on the perpetrators not specifically or necessarily by destroying chemical capability and delivery mechanisms. For instance attacks could be carried out on other military capabilities, military or government command and control or other significant targets.  (The 'Shock and Awe' attacks on Baghdad across a range of strategic targets at the beginning of the War in Iraq were intended to coerce key elements of the Iraqi government - not of course in connection with chemical attack.) Attacks could even be targeted against regime leadership although the US in particular has national legal constraints against 'decapitation'.

On the other hand deterrent attacks could be to deny the perpetrators further use of chemical weapons by eliminating the capability. Targeting could be against the chemical weapons stocks themselves and the means of delivery. Attacks could of course include both elements of deterrent effect.  Denial of use is likely to be more morally justifiable internationally than punishment. Even supporters of the Syrian regime would find it difficult to oppose elimination of the systems themselves and convincing attribution of perpetration is not quite so much of an issue.

Unintended Consequences

The principal problem associated with any form of attack but specifically against the chemical weapons would be collateral damage, in particular killing of innocent civilians. The purpose of the attacks is ultimately enforcement of moral principles and Western attackers face a paradox of conflict of principle.  The consequentialist argument that more innocents will die if chemical attack is allowed than from collateral damage is unlikely to achieve broad international support. It is also difficult to justify morally and legally because empirical measurements are complex and the boundaries for these measurements are uncertain.  Do the measurements relate just to Syria in the short term or general global deterrence in the longer term? And what is the timespan over which the killings will be justified?

If the chemical capabilities in Syria are locatable, they are likely to be 'protected' within civil communities for this reason. Other military capabilities may similarly be protected but Western attackers would have more options to be selective. Another problem in attacking chemical weapon stocks is the unintended release of the chemicals themselves - not quite the problem that it is for biological weapon stocks but a factor nonetheless.

If punishment or denial targets were locatable and could be attacked with discriminating weapons, the most obvious initial targets would be enemy air defences (SEAD - Suppression of Enemy Air Defences). These targets could include radars and ground based missiles but also air bases and fixed wing aircraft. These attacks could allow for further discriminating attacks against punishment targets including heavy armour - and also safer imposition of no fly zones for the longer term.

However Western intelligence and its sources may have identified other vulnerable punishment targets. Whatever they are, they must be clearly associated with the perpetrators for political and moral reasons.

One major problem with effective removal of leadership and military capability is that the subsequent civil war could reach a new high level with high levels of atrocities on all sides. Western powers would then bear moral responsibility for intervention on the ground for peace enforcement with internal political consequences or loss of reputation if no follow-up action is taken.  It would be a very risky judgement to attempt to shift the balance of power convincingly in favour of the 'rebels' whatever entity they comprise.

The most likely option is discreet punitive attacks against vulnerable military and government targets where there is low risk to innocent civilians. In any event the US, UK and France would be very restricted by the need for clear association with perpetrators and minimal collateral damage.
These nations could of course take discriminate military action to aid Turkey, who may feel less morally constrained because of direct threats to its own population, to take more brutal action.

Will the need for United Nations endorsement actually be an issue for these nations? The Kosovo War of 1999 was something of a watershed in the debate over Responsibility to Protect (R2P) versus UN permission. The West has done it before and there is a degree of customary acceptance even if there are dissenting Security Council members.


Michael Codner
Senior Research Fellow and Director of Personnel Services

Michael Codner is Senior Research Fellow in Military Sciences and Editorial Director of RUSI Defence Systems. Until 2013, he... read more

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