DIARIST'S NOTE: In a previous lifetime as a freelance writer, I did a number of magazine articles on chemical weapons, centered mostly around the "binary nerve gas" debate that happened during the Reagan Administration, and on chemical weapons proliferation in the 70's and 80's in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan. Indeed, I thought about doing a book on the subject back in the 90's and wrote most of a manuscript, but never finished it. So it's a topic I know a thing or two about.
This diary was written as a comment in another diary, but I thought it might be helpful in the ongoing debate over what to do about Syria, so I'm reposting it (in slightly modified form) as a diary.
In this debate, facts matter.
Can a US strike destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal? The only honest answer to that question is that we the public have no way to know---there is one crucial bit of information that is really needed to answer that question, and we the public do not have it (though it is certain that the US government DOES have it). That information is: just how stable are the Syrian chemical weapons?
Take the example of Iraq. Iraq made its nerve gas in the precise same manner that Syria did; they purchased plain ole ordinary pesticide-manufacturing equipment, legally and openly on the market, from companies in Europe and the US, and then modified those plants to make nerve gas instead of bug spray (nerve gas and insecticides are very similar chemically, and equipment used to make one can easily make the other). But the Iraqi process was not very good--it left a lot of impurities in the final product. As a result, Iraqi nerve gas degraded very quickly after production--within just a few weeks the impurities broke down the nerve gas and turned it into harmless goo. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqis could not even stockpile their nerve gas--they had to ship it directly from the factory to the front so they could use it right away before it went bad. As a result of this instability, when the Iraqi chemical weapons production plants were targeted and destroyed by aerial bombing during the First Gulf War with the US, Saddam could no longer produce any new nerve gas, and all his old supplies were gone within months--degraded and dissolved into thin air. (That is why it was simply impossible for Iraq to still have any nerve gas by the time Dubya invaded, and why all the "trucks carried the chemical weapons to Syria !!" stories were all bullshit.)
If Syria has all the same purity and storage problems that Iraq did, then destroying the production facilities (as the US did in Iraq) will lead to the same result--Assad will not be able to make more nerve gas, and his entire existing supplies will quickly become useless. (And if the Syrian rebels have their own chemical weapons obtained from the Syrian military, then that is true of them too--their weapons will be nothing but worthless sludge in a few months, no matter what we do.) If, on the other hand, the Syrians have a better production process and their nerve gas is more pure and stable than the Iraqi stuff was, then destroying the production plants, while crippling the ability to produce more, will not do anything about the already-existing stockpiles. I assume the US intelligence apparatus already knows the answer to this question, but such information seems not to have ever been released to the public. It would be a good thing to know, since it can have quite an impact on what decisions we make.
BTW--the "if we bomb the production plants we'll release gas on the surrounding civilians" argument makes a very valid point, but there are some factors that enter into that which we really don't know (well, the US government knows, but we the public don't). One question is whether we have identified all those plants and know where they are. I am assuming we do, since we have the technological capability of identifying CW-production plants solely by examining their waste water, without entering the plant and without anyone's knowledge, and I presume the US has already been monitoring that for many years now (Syria has been making chemical weapons since the 70's). The location of those plants has a direct bearing on what effect if any bombing them will have on civilians. While the effect of an accidentally-released gas cloud can be severe in the immediate area of the plant, the effects drop off rather quickly with distance, so even a large release would not cover a very large area. If the plants are relatively remote (as they were in Iraq for reasons of military security), then they can be bombed and destroyed with very little effect from any cloud of gas that is produced (as they were in Iraq). If the plants are located in densely populated urban areas, though, the effects, though small in area, could be large in effect. We the public simply don't know where the plants are. It's a vital factor in deciding whether or not to destroy them.
So the reality is that we the public simply don't have enough information to decide whether striking the production plants is feasible or not, or how much (if any) striking them will or will not cripple Syria's future chemical capabilities.
Based on standard military tactics and US past actions, my assumption would be that the US is planning a series of cruise missile strikes, drone strikes, and possibly aircraft strikes that will target (1) the chemical delivery systems--the aircraft and tactical missiles that can deliver large quantities of chemical weapons, (2) the air defense infrastructure (radars, interceptors, SAM sites) that would block the US from carrying out further strikes if they become necessary, and (3) the chemical production plants themselves, if they can be hit without much risk to the population.
And let me state, before some breathless pie-fighter gets their panties all in a knot at me, that I am simply assuming what the US will probably do--I'm not, repeat not, as in n-o-t, saying that I like it or agree with it. As I have repeatedly said over the past few days, I see no good end to anything that anyone does in the Syrian civil war, I see no "good guys" anywhere in this situation (including the US), and I am adamantly opposed to any unilateral US action to "enforce international law" that does not have specific previous authorization by the UN or NATO.