U.S. military options in Syria: A briefing


The crisis in Syria deepened Monday as U.N. weapons inspectors, allowed to access the area where an alleged chemical attack occurred last week, were fired on by snipers. As the situation deteriorates, military intervention becomes less of an “if” and more of a “when” — and that task would probably fall to the United States.

U.S. military action through the United Nations seems a dead end because Russia has veto power in the U.N. Security Council, and Russia is supporting the government of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

That means the United States would have to work through NATO — probably with enough support from the Arab League to give the West diplomatic cover — or go it almost entirely alone, if it decides to take military action to stop Assad from using chemical weapons.

But intervening in Syria is not as simple as ordering tidy American airstrikes. 

Moves made

U.N. chemical weapons experts visit a Syrian hospital where people are treated after an apparent gas attack. Reuters / Abo Alnour Alhaji

The United States has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, close to Syria. But the U.S. Navy maintains a steady presence in the Mediterranean, so the temporary increase appears to be more for saber-rattling than a tactical step to ready for an attack.

American destroyers can already launch attacks against Syrian targets from much farther west in the Mediterranean. And there has been no sign that the United States is moving any additional assets that would suggest imminent action from those ships.

How to strike

An airstrike from the United States intended to hobble Syria’s storage or delivery of chemical weapons is more complicated than flying a couple of jets. It takes backup — search-and-rescue teams, MedEvac equipment, refueling aircraft.

So far, there is no sign that any of those reinforcements are moving.

In addition, Syria has relatively strong air defenses — much stronger than Libya had during its standoff with the West two years ago — and conventional bombing would run the risk that the Syrian regime could shoot down a manned American plane.

Still, if the United States elected to use bombers, it could fly B-2 stealth planes, perhaps from Whiteman Air Force Base, in Missouri. B-2 bombers are skilled at evading powerful anti-aircraft defenses.

A 2009 photo shows Egyptian children standing on a pier in the port town of Ismalia as the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan travels the Suez from the Red Sea toward the Mediterranean. The US Sixth Fleet, with responsibility in the Mediterranean, has decided to keep the USS Mahan in the region. AFP - Getty Images file

But any American strike against Syria would probably take a different form — cruise missile strikes launched from the Mediterranean, not flying American aircraft directly into Syrian airspace.

American drone strikes might also be an option. But while the United States has plenty of drones in the broader Middle East, few armed drones are believed to be near Syria at the moment. American drone activity remains focused on Yemen, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa.

So the most likely American option is cruise missile strikes from what are known as TLAMs — Tomahawk land attack missiles, fired from destroyers or submarines. They have small engines and are extremely accurate.

Even with cruise missiles, it’s not as easy as bombing a Syrian factory that makes chemical weapons. It doesn’t take a four-star general to figure out why firing a missile into a giant chemical-weapons stockpile is a dangerous idea.

Any American attack would probably come at night. The reason for that is simple: It lowers the chance that innocent people will be hurt. Fewer people are out on the streets near the target, and fewer drivers are on the road.

Best target

The best American option would probably be to go after the mechanisms Syria uses to deploy its chemical weapons — delivery systems and command-and-control structures.

Even then, Assad knows better than to put chemical weapons stockpiles and delivery systems in the middle of nowhere. He probably has positioned them in strategically tricky places, like close to schools and towns.

That way, an enemy strike would run the risk of harming huge numbers of Syrian civilians, even children, and acts as a deterrent for enemies of the Syrian government.