As U.S. officials work to confirm intelligence assessments that Syria's Bashar al-Assad has deployed sarin gas, a former senior White House counterterrorism official said the Pentagon has no good military response options to support President Obama's "red line" threat against chemical weapon use.
"I don't think there are any good military options," said Gary Samore, former coordinator for weapons of mass destruction counterterrorism and arms control, now executive director of research at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Samore was skeptical that the administration ultimately would conclude conclusively that Syria in fact used sarin. But regardless of that call, he said, this could be just the beginning of a more deadly phase of the conflict.
"Because the stakes are so high, the administration is not going to accept that chemical weapons were used even on a small scale unless there is very conclusive evidence," he said, in an interview. In fact, he's more worried that Syria could respond by unleashing its chemical arsenal.
"There's a very high risk that there will be more chemical weapons use," he said. "The military options are really horrendous."
Either the United States has to strike the chemical weapons, or the delivery vehicles for them, he explained. Those assets are believed to be spread across the country. If Syria wanted to conduct a full-scale chemical assault, they would use aircraft. The United States would then have to destroy the Syrian air force before it leaves the ground. But chemical weapons can also be delivered via missiles or artillery, which would require the U.S. targeting Assad's arsenal of short-range rockets and conventional weapons.
"If you look at all the options... there are just so many of them that you're talking about a very large-scale military intervention."
Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.