John Reed at Foreign Policy raises a pertinent question: Could a U.S. attack on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon sites inadvertently release deadly chemicals?
There’s also the issue of civilian harm. Some worry that hitting chemical weapons depots or factories may hurt or kill large numbers of innocents if the chemicals are released into the air by exploding missiles. Assad’s military is said to possess chemical weapons ranging from sarin and VX to mustard gas. While sarin may, in some circumstances, vaporize relatively quickly when hit with a missile, mustard gas isn’t as easy to destroy and a missile strike could push it into the air. (The U.S. military goes to great pains to destroy its own chemical weapons far, far away from people just in case there any tiny leakage of the deadly poisons from the destruction facilities.) Even if the number of people killed by the release of toxins from a U.S. airstrike is relatively small — and relatively might be the key word here — compared to the numbers who who die when Assad uses his chemical weapons, the PR catastrophe that would result from Syrian civilians dying from a U.S. airstrike meant to protect them from chemical weapons would be pretty awful.
[Chris] Harmer [of the Institute for the Study of War] says he’s not particularly worried about chemical collateral damage; the worst of the weapons, like sarin, are stored in “binary” format, with their chemical pre-cursors in separate units. “These weapons are more difficult to use than people realize; damaging them in place may vent chemicals to the atmosphere, but it is not like nuclear radiation — chemical weapons will dissipate” relatively quickly, said Harmer. “There may be some collateral damage [in a strike destroying such weapons], but far less than use of chemical weapons” by the Assad regime.
Still, as Reed notes, any innocent Syrians gassed thanks to American missile strikes would do enormous damage to our credibility, and all for a strike that can’t possibly destroy all or even most of Assad’s WMDs. Something to consider.
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