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Why Syria's chemical weapons would be difficult target for US strike (+video)

The US has said it wants to deter Syria – or anyone else – from using chemical weapons. But hitting the chemical weapons themselves could be dangerous for several reasons.

By Staff writer / August 28, 2013

Free Syrian Army fighters escort a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts through one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus' suburbs of Zamalka August 28, 2013. US officials have made it clear that a main goal of a US strike on Syria would be to deter future use of this particular weapon of mass destruction, by Syria or anyone else.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

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It looks as if the US is about to attack Syria because the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people. US officials have made it clear that a main goal of such a strike would be to deter future use of this particular weapon of mass destruction, by Syria or anyone else.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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UN inspectors set off Wednesday to a site in the Syrian capital of alleged chemical weapons attacks, a day after suspending their mission over safety concerns.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday said that since the end of World War I the Chemical Weapons Convention and other multilateral efforts have established an international norm against use of poison gas.

“The use of chemical weapons on the scale that we saw on Aug. 21 cannot be ignored. It must be responded to, because to allow it to happen without a response would be to invite further use of chemical weapons and to have that international standard dissolved,” said Mr. Carney.

But here is one complication: From a military standpoint, chemical weapons themselves are a difficult target. Deterrence in this case might involve US strikes against the infrastructure that supports their use, including missiles and other delivery systems, and command-and-control sites, as opposed to chemical stocks.

For one thing, chemical weapons would not just harmlessly vaporize in an attack. If hit by US munitions, chemical dumps could release some poisons into the air or in liquid form on the ground. Predicting the environmental effect in the surrounding area would be extremely difficult.

US cruise missiles in particular would not be able to destroy chemical stocks. Their warheads are not big enough to incinerate chemical weapons.

“Air operations alone will likely be able to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile only to a certain extent, but not completely,” writes naval analyst Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War in a study of possible US actions in Syria.

Second, air strikes against chemical depots could allow extremist rebel factions access to any remaining stocks. With gates blown open and guards scattered or killed, Islamist groups might seize chemical weapons – a nightmare proliferation scenario.

Third, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is probably too big for the US to destroy without the kind of large scale, boots-on-the ground military operation that the Obama administration has already ruled out.

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