Cordesman, however, warned that sending U.S. special forces into Syria to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons stocks before they could be stolen or used in major attacks is too risky and would likely end in disaster. “It’s a great movie, but that’s where it ends,” he said.
U.S. airstrikes could destroy the stocks – if they haven’t been dispersed to hidden locations – but they wouldn’t end the country’s bloody civil war, which the United Nations estimates already has claimed at least 90,000 lives, forced more than 950,000 Syrians to flee the country and left millions living in devastated cities and towns, Cordesman added.
The White House disclosure of the U.S. intelligence assessments brought renewed calls from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others for the administration to steer arms supplies to moderate opposition groups.
Arms intended for moderate forces, however, already have ended up in the hands of Islamist fighters.
McCain and others also have advocated the establishment over rebel-controlled areas along the border with Turkey of a no-fly zone in which opposition groups could forge a government-in-exile, conduct military training and establish bases.
Obama, however, rejected that option long ago because Russia and China would veto any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing such a zone.
Moreover, the United States and its allies would have to conduct a lengthy, intense and risky air campaign to knock out Syria’s extensive air defense system.
Randa Slim, an expert with the Middle East Institute, said that Obama will have to take some kind of action or risk large-scale regime chemical attacks on opposition enclaves that Assad’s forces appear to be carving out around Damascus, the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon.
If it is eventually confirmed that Assad’s forces did stage small-scale chemical strikes, she explained, they wouldn’t have been for military purposes but intended to test “Obama’s resolve” to enforce warnings to Assad that the United States would act if Assad used chemical weapons.
If Obama doesn’t “do something now,” she said, “we will see Assad upping the ante and using CW (chemical warfare) on a larger scale.”
One option, she said, could be U.S. airstrikes on the barracks of the regime forces that used the chemical weapons.
But she agreed that Obama’s choices are “between bad and worse.”