In recent days, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended speculation over whether thousands of American troops might be sent to Syria to prevent deadly chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands, and he publicly rejected contingency plans drawn up by the Pentagon for a ground operation involving up to 75,000 troops.
Panetta’s statement has major implications for the immediate post-Assad future, and for how the international community will respond after the Assad regime loses control of its chemical weapons sites — a development that could occur at any time.
With at least 60,000 dead, and Syria hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of refugees to its neighbors Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, the Syrian civil war is drawing in the world’s most dangerous elements to a land that hosts the world’s largest stockpile of VX nerve agents, Sarin, and mustard gas.
In Assad’s corner are Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are keeping the regime alive in its fight against the rebels, and who may well decide that the chemical weapons should be given to Hezbollah.
In the rebels’ corner are growing numbers of global jihadi elements, such as the Al Nusra Front, a sister organization of al Qaeda in Iraq. The implications of chemical weapons in the hands of al Qaeda speak for themselves.
As any one of these dangerous entities could try to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons, the failure of the international community to try to neutralize this threat should not even be an option. The question is not if, but how.
There are dozens of chemical weapons storage and production sites spread out across Syria, as well as several hundred tons of chemical agents. Hence, any operation would require extensive planning, intelligence, and resources.
Having taken ground troops out of the responses being considered, Panetta is signaling that air-power and precision missile strikes will form the crux of the response. There is no guarantee, of course, that air power alone can fully eliminate the chemical sites.
If the U.S. will not send ground troops, it becomes more likely that any one of Syria’s neighbors threatened by the unconventional weapons will choose to do so instead, to avoid the risk of weapons of mass destruction being used in or near their territory.
As President Barack Obama has stated, the U.S. is working closely with Turkey, Jordan and Israel to formulate responses to the developing threat.
In Israel, less than half of the population is equipped with gas masks to protect against chemical attacks. Although Israel has advanced missile defenses, there is no telling how a chemical payload might be delivered. One possibility is mortar shells.
Hence, Israel will not rely on defensive techniques when it comes to dealing with the threat, and is prepared to take action should it identify an attempt by a hostile entity to seize chemical weapons.
Against this background, the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command has spent recent years preparing all of Israel’s 27 hospitals for the threat of chemical attacks.
Although the drills are not directly related to recent developments in Syria, and were planned three years ago, they enable hospitals to prepare a tangible response for such incidents.
As one senior Home Front Command official said earlier this month, “We train a lot for chemical weapons. This is our business. There is no room for error.”
All of the hospitals have faced unannounced exercises, in which mock patients are wheeled in from a chemical incident.
The IDF has been impressed with the hospitals’ responses, describing them as highly satisfactory.
Some major hospitals in Tel Aviv and Haifa have also created underground back-up intensive care and pregnancy wards, to allow these critical wards to function even under heavy missile attack.
In comparison, Turkey and Jordan have no known defenses in place against chemical weapons, with the exception of NATO Patriot missiles installed on Turkey’s border with Syria, and which could shoot down incoming Syrian missiles carrying unconventional warheads.
In light of what is at stake, all of the countries in Syria’s vicinity will be hoping that the U.S. elimination of ground troops will at least be replaced with an air campaign that is decisive.
Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.