Although Obama has implied that the U.S. response to a chemical weapons attack would be harsh, the former official said the options being considered range widely in scale. A chemical attack that causes relatively few casualties might not prompt any U.S. military response.
“The Syrians are already killing 100 people a day with rockets and small arms,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in talking about contingency plans. “The United States may not feel compelled to do anything unless there is widespread use.”
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Risks in destroying the arsenal
Internal debates over the level of U.S. retaliation reflect a variety of concerns, officials said. There are fears that too meek a response could signal to Assad that he can escalate with impunity. Experts said Assad and his military advisers appear to have proceeded carefully with other weapons, including Scud missiles, limiting their use initially to gauge the reaction of the United States and its allies.
More aggressive options include a plan to destroy Assad’s air force to prevent it from using aerial munitions that form the most deadly portion of the regime’s chemical arsenal. But that would leave large quantities of artillery shells and rockets armed with chemical warheads in the hands of Syrian ground troops.
U.S. officials have concluded that it might be possible to destroy much of Assad’s chemical arsenal, but doing so without risking dispersing chemicals that could cause widespread casualties would require using explosives placed and detonated by highly trained operatives at the sites, not airstrikes.
The Jordanians being trained now would probably only be able to secure a portion of the Syria’s arsenal, which is estimated to include hundreds of tons of sarin and other poisons. Capturing and securing the most worrisome facilities would probably require inserting U.S. and other nations’ troops in large enough numbers to fend off Syrian units for extended periods at dozens of sites.
“Just getting in and out could be hairy,” the former U.S. official said.