As Daddy Warbucks once observed, “You always have to skin your own skunks.” Perhaps this insight is particularly appropriate if the United States adopts the elimination of chemical weapons as a goal for involvement in Syria.
First of all, neither side of the Syrian conflict has committed to elimination of chemical weapons. If the United States chooses to intervene militarily to stop chemical weapon use, it should recognize from the start that it has limited ability to destroy chemical munitions through strikes even if it has the ability to destroy Syrian forces. Large chemical weapon stocks will survive even a sustained bombing campaign.
Even if a new regime accepts chemical weapon elimination, glib assertions that such weapons can simply be dumped at sea or burned in place when the friendly regime is installed ignore international law and environmental and political consequences. Planning for peace needs to get past the idea of destroying targets and address how to destroy industrial scale quantities of dangerous materials in environmentally acceptable ways. The First Gulf War is the last time the U.S. really attempted to destroy real chemical weapons outside U.S. territory. Our experience then is both enlightening and sobering.
At the close of the First Gulf War in March 1991, U.S. soldiers inspecting Bunker 73 at Khamisiyah found only some 122mm rockets, presumably with high explosive warheads. The soldiers set demolition charges that collapsed the bunker and inadvertently released sarin and cyclosarin nerve agents from some of the rockets. Other American soldiers downwind of the site may have been exposed to the chemical agents, producing lingering health effects. This event, along with its possible health consequences, was one incident in what came to be called the Gulf War Syndrome controversy. Much later, the Persian Gulf War Illnesses Task Force caused the Central Intelligence Agency to prepare a report — Intelligence Update: Chemical Warfare Agent Issues During the Persian Gulf War — issued in April 2002 that in describing the background of various chemical releases analyzes the effects of Coalition attacks on chemical weapons in 1991. Even though this report is now more than 20 years old, it demonstrates how difficult it would be to attack Syrian chemical weapons today.
As the CIA report shows, the soldiers at Khamisiyah did not recognize the 122mm rockets as chemical weapons because they were not marked. Chemical weapons — aerial bombs, artillery or mortar shells, or artillery rockets — look pretty much like their high-explosive brothers in size and shape. The primary distinguishing features are usually colored bands or stenciled markings. We expect to find such markings because ever since World War I (when chemical weapons were first introduced in modern warfare) countries have used markings to prevent accidents in handling. Saddam Hussein's Iraq did not routinely mark chemical munitions (apparently relying on paper manifests): Iraqi chemical weapons were virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of thousands of outwardly similar high-explosive rounds that filled ammunition bunkers.
Iraq's bulk-storage containers for chemical agents were even more anonymous than the filled chemical munitions. Not only were the containers not specially marked, but they were common to the chemical industry. Saddam Hussein's Iraq used one- and two-metric-ton containers as well as a 20-metric-ton container for mustard. Bulk nerve agent was stored in a two-metric-ton aluminum container also used for inhibited red fuming nitric acid, itself a propellant for SCUD missiles as well as a common industrial chemical.
Finally, the report also shows that the intelligence community's pre-war belief that chemical weapons were associated with particular types of storage facilities was mistaken. Moreover, the Iraqis attempted to evade Coalition air strikes by moving munitions from known storage locations — sometimes into the open — and burying some bulk storage. These evasions were largely successful. The CIA assessed that “most chemical munitions were missed by Coalition aerial bombing” and that Coalition bombing had released less than 8 percent of the more than 700 tons of chemical weapons and bulk agents later found by the U.N. Special Commission supervising Iraqi chemical weapons disarmament.
In the period after the First Gulf War, the U.N. Special Commission and its successor the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission supervised the disarmament and destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons. They discovered that large quantities of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals had survived the war, and that their destruction would entail a major industrial operation. Iraqi engineers, scientists, and technicians — still working for the Saddam Hussein regime — carried out the actual work of destruction under supervision of the U.N. specialists. The Iraqi workers were precisely those who had created the weapons in the first place and knew what they were dealing with.
Coalition bombing had only damaged, not destroyed, key components of Iraq's chemical weapons production infrastructure that could be used for disarmament, such as the Iraqi sarin plant that was converted to a hydrolysis plant for destruction of the nerve agents and their precursor chemicals. This was a stroke of luck in dealing with hundreds of tons of the most dangerous materials. In addition, a wholly new incineration plant was designed and constructed for mustard gas and its precursors. Finally, those chemical munitions and bulk agents that had been damaged by the Coalition strikes and rendered too dangerous for safe disposal were entombed in bunkers at the Al Muthanna site. This work was not completed until May 1994 — more than three years after the war ended.
Syria shares many of the same features and scale that made Iraqi weapons such a difficult target. The combined lessons of the attack and disarmament of Iraq's chemical weapons in the First Gulf War suggest that chemical weapons are hard to find and destroy. Lots can survive even a sustained attack. Moreover, those that remain will present a disposal operation of industrial scale and environmental concern.
There is no reason to believe that the U.S. is better able to deal with chemical weapons in Syria today than it was with chemical weapons in Iraq in 1991.
Intelligence may be better than it was, but it is always imperfect. Chemical munitions are still difficult to distinguish, and storage sites are numerous and opaque. And we have enough experience with being spun tales on WMD to make us suspicious of reports from the region. The U.S. may be in the situation of having both many possible targets and real doubt that the list includes all actual storage and weapon sites.
There are U.S. weapons with new capabilities. The American nerve agent eliminated at the Anniston Chemical Agent Facility is destroyed at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. But because the combustion products at 800 degrees are themselves unhealthy, the actual incineration process burns the agent at more than two thousand degrees to insure the safety of American citizens downwind of the plant. There are weapons that can create such high temperatures. But dropping such weapons on suspected chemical weapon sites is not the same as a reliable chemical engineering process, possible incomplete destruction leaving damaged but still lethal munitions complicating later disposal and collateral casualties from agent release need to be considered carefully as part of any targeting.
Finally, there are those members of the Free Syrian Army who have reportedly been trained to deal with chemical weapons, matching their skills to assigned tasks needs to be considered realistically.
Together all could be useful tactical improvements on the performance of the First Gulf War, but they do not match the scale of the problem.
If the ultimate outcome of American military involvement is to be both the replacement of the existing regime and the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the very first task is to get agreement that the new regime actually accedes to elimination of chemical weapons. If it does, current planning must recognize that the burden of disposal will fall to external powers. And these external powers will have to destroy the chemical weapons in Syria because no one is willing to accept them; they cannot be just dumped in the Mediterranean.
At a minimum, this means that infrastructure useful for disposal should be identified and kept off target lists. Unlike the Iraqi situation, in which regime loyalists could be used to carry out the destruction work under supervision, the planning, manning, and training for Syrian chemical destruction will need to be based on external sources. And finally, it will take several years — as it did in Iraq — to accomplish the destruction. During that time the material must be adequately secured by reliable forces.
Acting as if military involvement will not lead to these additional burdens and commitments would only delay adequate preparation and insure poor execution.
James Quinlivan is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on The RAND Blog and GlobalSecurity.org on May 21, 2013.