It is far from clear, however, that a strike against Syrian CW would succeed. None of the aforementioned munitions has ever been used for that purpose. Moreover, target intelligence may be less than adequate. U.S. intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction has not always been up to snuff (think Iraq and Libya), and reports that the regime has consolidated its chemical stockpiles in a number of secure locations to prevent their capture may make it harder to figure out exactly where they are. And if the United States were to act, the regime might well use CW against its own population and blame the casualties on a U.S. strike that had gone awry.
Moreover, as the United States learned after the 1991 Gulf War, most munitions would likely survive a strike, buried under layers of rubble, though they would probably be inaccessible to anyone not equipped with protective gear. (Even properly equipped individuals might find the task too risky; U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq dealt with some bombed-out CW bunkers by entombing them in concrete.) And it is not clear how much agent would be released into the air, posing a threat to nearby civilians. U.S. government studies determined that most agent released as a result of airstrikes on CW bunkers during the Gulf War was absorbed by the soil, contained by storage crates and facilities, or incinerated in the explosions; only a small amount was dispersed into the air.
It is not clear whether such conditions would pertain in the event of strikes on Syria's CW, though steps can be taken to limit the impact of any agent release by striking when atmospheric and weather conditions are favorable. Windy conditions would hasten the dissipation of any released agent, while rain (it is currently the rainy season in Syria) could preclude the formation of a toxic plume, though it might also create a ground contamination hazard.
Finally, at least some of Syria's sarin munitions are binary weapons, which consist of two precursor chemicals that are stored separately and that become highly lethal only when combined. If targeted prior to mixing, any precursors released into the air would likely have little effect on nearby populations. In this way, some of Syria's most lethal chemical arms could be disposed of before they cause greater harm, if the United States has the intelligence needed for such a strike. However, media reports that the regime has already prepared some binary-type munitions for use add an additional layer of complexity to the targeting challenge, as it may now be more difficult to distinguish those sarin munitions that can be safely targeted from those that cannot.
The United States has made clear that it is likely to act only in the aftermath of a chemical attack. Even then, Washington must be willing to act on the basis of ambiguous reports, in circumstances fraught with uncertainty, if it is to prevent additional use of CW. As experience in Iraq and elsewhere has shown, it can take weeks or months to verify allegations of chemical weapons use. By then, much of the damage will be done. Accordingly, the United States should be prepared to gather, with great urgency, forensic and epidemiological evidence in response to future claims of CW use.
The international community, moreover, must prepare for the worst. Medical supplies sufficient for several mass-casualty events involving chemical weapons should be prepositioned in the region -- if this has not been done already. Arabic- and Kurdish-language guidelines for reacting to a chemical attack (move upwind and seek high ground if in the open; move indoors and create a sealed room using wet rags, plastic sheeting, or other improvised means; and do not use water stored in open containers) should be readied for dissemination by radio, satellite TV, and the Internet.
Through its reluctance to take even modest steps to bolster deterrence and to prepare for the aftermath of a CW attack, Washington risks signaling Damascus that it is free to act as it wishes. And this only increases the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster that will be remembered by the Syrian people and haunt U.S. policy toward the region for many years to come.