Friday, July 27, 2012

Will Syria use its Chemical Weapons?

The Syrian regime recently issued this statement that they would not used chemical weapons:
Syria will not use any chemical or other unconventional weapons against its civilians, and will only use them in case of external aggression.
This is a regime of profound mendacity and viciousness, can they be believed?

The answer is a qualified yes. The official Syrian statement focuses on external actors.

Outside powers have been cautious in their support for Syria’s rebels.  There are many reasons for this, political and operational.  The heavy armor and air power remains a critical advantage for the Baathists.  A NATO air campaign could remove this advantage fairly quickly.  The complaints about Syria being a tougher target then Libya are probably more an issue of logistics then of Syrian capabilities.  Israel has demonstrated the ability to operate in Syrian air space at will.  It is tough to imagine that NATO could not do the same.  However, the Libya operation strained NATO’s capabilities substantially.  Syria would require a far greater commitment (there are many, many more targets) and there almost certainly would be accidents, which could result in both civilian and NATO casualties.

Chemical weapons are a taboo and if the regime turns to them, NATO’s dithering would come to a very quick end.  Understanding that, the Syrian regime loses little by declaring it won’t use them domestically – since doing so would bring international repercussions that would probably end its existence.  At the same time, the chemical weapons act as a deterrent, sending the message that if foreign powers do get involved, Syria will use them.  If the regime is going down anyway, they could launch these weapons at Israel, Turkey, or some other civilian target and potentially cause mass casualties.

The chemical weapons serve as a longer-term bargaining chip.  If the Syrian regime is moving towards an Alawistan, control of the chemical weapons (and the threat of loose chemical weapons) could be useful in achieving some level of international recognition – either dejure or defacto.

The problem with this sort of scenario is the extent to which it limits the freedom of action of Americans and other opponents of the Baathist regime.  If the regime is going to fall eventually anyway, the US needs to engage the rebels to keep a hand in the post-Assad era (which, knowing the Middle East has every opportunity to be very ugly.)  But the rebels want substantial support, not more international resolutions.  Will that kind of support – if it is traced back – be viewed by the Syrians as external interference and trigger chemical weapons usage?  Maybe not, since the use would just trigger the air-strikes the regime doesn’t want anyway.

Cyber Options?
If the West needs a careful, undetectable tool to use against the Syrians – what about cyber-weapons?  Could cyber-strikes be used to interfere with the Syrian regimes’ command and control?  What if the orders for the planes to fly and the tanks to roll simply aren’t transferred (or if the supplies needed to make these things happen are not put in place)?

This is the kind of thing US planners have worried could happen to the US in a conflict.  But Syrian communications may in fact be technologically unsophisticated enough to make such attacks unworkable.  Also, Syria has been a victim of such strikes before and may have strengthened its defenses.

Even if the Syrian regime is an appropriate target for cyber-weapons it is not cost free.  When cyber-capabilities are used, they are no longer secret.  The attacks would probably not be detected in the short-term, giving the attacker the plausible deniability needed.  But eventually, the information would emerge and it would give potential adversaries (state and non-state) tremendous intelligence about what the United States was capable of and ideas for how to develop their own systems.

However, if these tools can be effectively applied to reduce the bloodshed in Syria, it is an option that should be taken very, very seriously.

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