The price of gas: Tomahawks and Wild Weasels over Syria

The US guided-missile destroyer USS Preble fires a Tomahawk missile in training. Such weapons would form the mainstay of any US attack on Assad government forces in Syria. EPA/Woody Shag Pascal

A decade ago US air power was talked about as an instrument of “shock and awe”. In August 2013 it is apparently being downgraded, with President Obama referring to potential strikes on Syria as “a pretty strong signal” and “a shot across the bow”. This down-playing of martial potency reflects the no-win situation posed by the Syrian shambles.

As Obama and his allies ponder how best to respond to the Syrian gas attacks, the collection of options open to them are limited. With no one seriously expecting to see a ground intervention, it will be [Tomahawk cruise missiles](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomahawk_(missile) and smart bombs doing the work. But to what effect?

Bomb damage assessment

Just as with any conflict there is no solution to be found in a totally air-based campaign. Strikes by aircraft and missiles will only achieve what they are designed for: blowing stuff up. Even a no-fly zone is of limited application. What good is a no-fly zone when government troops are using mortars and rockets to deliver the nerve gas? As with the Libyan campaign, there is also the paradox of the West providing air cover for al-Qaeda militants.

Enforcing an air exclusion zone also means patrolling over Syria, with the attendant risk of being shot down. Whilst the Americans in particular do air defence suppression extremely well, the gauntlet they will have to run will pose greater risk than what was left of the Iraqi systems in 2003. No doubt the Israelis will have plenty of tips to offer to the American “Wild Weasel” aircraft attempting to bait the Syrian radar sites into a ‘“use it and lose it” game.

An air campaign is not even likely to remove the threat of chemical munitions. The problem is, when you drop a bomb on a stockpile of nerve gas shells, the contents get released, sucked up in the plume and dispersed over the surrounding area. Aside from that, shattering the facilities where these weapons are held means that anyone else can walk in and remove them. The prospect of a Salafist jihad group making off with a truckload of Sarin shells would be worrying for the West….though who is to say whether it has already happened or not anyway in the Syrian chaos?

Political fallout

Finally, a punitive air campaign on Syria will have limited political effect. Damage will no doubt be inflicted on the regime’s assets. They will lose a good part of their air defences and some command infrastructure. However, they are already in a fight to the death and it’s not anti-aircraft missiles they are deploying against the rebels. Slapping Assad’s wrist with some smart bombs won’t change the fundamental dynamics of the Syrian situation: who do we support out of the disparate factions involved?

The majority of fighting in Syria is being conducted with small arms like these, claimed to have been captured from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front by Assad forces last week. EPA/SANA

The inability to garner UN support is a further difficulty for Obama. Even when America uses the UK to run the ball up, Russia and China will veto any use of force. So that leaves the President with the need to go outside international mechanisms. Whilst he will no doubt have the support of key allies, unilateralism over a WMD issue carries the whiff of opprobrium post-Iraq. The dilemma for Obama is then which particular loss of credibility is his least worst option: giving up his “red line” on chemical weapons or being compared to GW Bush in acting outside the UN?

Un-natural gas

When it comes to the “why” of committing to such a theoretical red line, the question must be raised as to what is it about chemical weapons that gets everybody so toma-hawkish? In a radio interview I did this week the presenter kept stressing the fact that the gas attack had meant the Syrian government were 'killing their own people’. Yet with over 100,000 “conventional” (but apparently less spectacular) deaths already in the civil war, it is proof of the power of chemical munitions to crystallise attention and revulsion.

As early as 1812 chemical weapons had been offered to the British Admiralty as a means of incapacitating French shore defences. The systems were barely even trialled and never deployed, with the feeling being that they “did not accord with the feelings and principles of civilised warfare”. Of course, 100 years later, these prohibitions had seemingly been lifted and gas was regularly deployed on the Western Front of World War 1.

In 1925, the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention specifically recognised “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” Indeed, so great was the revulsion for gas warfare that in the Second World War it was never deployed in Europe, even though most belligerents had access to stockpiles.

Since then, the use of gases in war has been extremely limited, with the exception of the Iran-Iraq War where it was regularly deployed by Iraq against military and civilian targets. The gas assault on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988 became notorious as a war crime, despite the fact that in terms of victims it pales into comparison with the number of civilian deaths attributed to Saddam via more conventional weapons. It seems that in the eyes of the world, gas is somehow different and this tactic has, for nearly 100 years, been smothered by an attitude hostile to its use.

The inescapable conclusion is that a leader can shoot and bomb as many people as he likes. But woe betide him if he gases anyone. Obama, and the Egyptian authorities, are obviously aware of that.