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Option 3: How The U.S. May Intervene in Syria.


By Tom Demerly for


The Arleigh-Burke cruise missile frigate the USS Mahan (DDG-72).

There are three likely options for a U.S. punitive strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons:

Option 1 is the predictable Tomahawk cruise missile strike. It would likely be launched from the specially equipped USS Stout (DDG-55), the USS Mahan (DDG-72), the USS Ramage (DDG-61), the USS Gravely (DDG-107) and the USS Barry (DDG-933) as they cruise the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast. They would strike the confirmed chemical weapon storage sites with some of their 300+ precision guided UGM-109E Tomahawk Block IV Land Attack Missiles once accurate targeting coordinates (supplied by the Israelis among other assets) are uploaded to the missiles. The destruction will likely be complete and, from a U.S. casualty exposure perspective, antiseptic.

Option 2 is a precision air strike carried out by B-2 Spirit bombers launched (possibly) from Whiteman AFB in the U.S. and supported by French aircraft and assets. This is a complex option for a number of logistical and perceptive reasons. It exposes the expensive B-2’s and their crews to a long flight from Missouri. The mission would require multiple mid-air refuelings along with exposure to risk over the target area.

The B-2 Spirits of the 509th Bomb Wing may be forward deployed closer to the region, at Diego Garcia for instance, as they were to the Philippines during the recent North Korean crisis. That said, B-2’s launched from Whiteman AFB were recently used for precision strikes against Libya. On March 19, 2011, three B-2s of the 509th Bomb Wing struck 45 targets including the airfield at Ghardabiya, Libya. Bomb damage assessment photos showed hardened aircraft shelters at that base were precisely targeted and destroyed by the B-2’s.

The concern with using B-2’s isn’t so much that the Syrians could shoot one down, although their Soviet style integrated air defense network is formidable, it is the complexity of a B-2 raid.  A B-2 raid on Syria from Whiteman AFB would likely be over 25 hours in duration. It would cover 12,000+ non-stop flying miles.  A benefit of a cruise missile strike compared to B-2’s is, if a Tomahawk missile crashes, no one gets a visit from a chaplain. If a B-2 and its crew are lost that is two terrible messages to deliver and billions in lost technology and training.

Option 3 is the wild card.

A combined French/U.S. special operations team would use intelligence gathered in the previous months by a number of nations, including Israel. The combined task force would infiltrate Syria from the north via land- likely using trucks. They would assault and capture the chemical weapons storage facility with tactical and rotary wing air support, collecting video of the weapons cache- the “smoking gun”for later distribution to news networks . The world would see the verification. The team would perform a match of the stored chemical weapons against those used in the attacks on the Syrian rebels and civilians.  There would be minimal exposure to Syrian casualties, good guys and bad, an intact “smoking gun” of captured chemical weapons and a gold star for an administration already renowned for its creativity.

There is no perfect option. Option 1 seems politically antiseptic except for the problem that attacking a chemical weapons cache with cruise missiles risks disbursing the very weapons they are sent to destroy. The US could unwittingly create its own chemical attack. There is also the issue of verification. Tomahawks would make deep, smoking, contaminated craters that could be spun in any number of ways; that there was nothing there, that the strikes spread the weapons even further, that it was, in fact, a pharmaceutical research facility or even that the Tomahawks had carried the gas residue into the target area themselves.

Option 2 is so close to option 1 the line between them is blurred. There is the additional exposure of US aircraft being over Syria. Not that there is much concern over Assad’s forces shooting down a B-2, but more that one may have an in- flight emergency and go down anywhere in the region. Messy. Complex. Same problems as Option 1.

Then there is option 3.

There is a saying that if your favorite tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The President has used this hammer before, and hit the nail on the head. The Bin Laden raid was a similar affair. It wasn’t enough to antiseptically dispatch the target with drones or stealth bombers Bill Clinton style. There needed to be a “body”, a “smoking gun”, although hopefully not literally smoking in this instance. Like the Bin Laden raid, there needs to be an airtight case that the chemical weapons seized are the ones used to kill hundreds s of Syrian rebels and civilians. There needs to be irrefutable proof.

The hypothetical play out:

In a three-hour meeting on Friday evening at the White House, Option 3 won. A ninety-minute phone call between the U.S. President and British Prime Minister David Cameron put the requisite parties in touch, and the required wheels turning. Parliament voted the British out, the French were still in.

Planning for Option 3 began at Headquarters; United States Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida. Directives were issued. The units involved were sent into isolation for planning. The U.S. Army and the Navy had maintained a WMD special operations response capability since 9/11. They had deployed operationally several times, mostly in Iraq for WMD recovery. Their commanders brainstormed ideas using existing mission templates for this contingency. It only took an hour to flush out a viable plan by comparing templates to intel.  Thirty hours later the assets were in motion. A key part of the plan was to strike while the news cycle still carried the photos of dead Syrian children on their front pages. In the Internet age the public has a short memory for horror.


The U.S. special operations team inserted into Turkey under various covers as journalists, aid workers and weapons inspectors before launching their raid into Syria.

The U.S. special operations component of the mission would remain entirely classified, as it usually did except in the case of Operation Neptune Spear, which made for darn good Hollywood and bookstore fodder. No one would ever know the details of U.S. ground involvement in this operation, now internally dubbed “Operation Specific Scalpel”. As far as the media was concerned this was a joint operation between a hastily assembled coalition, the Syrian rebels and with “assistance and support” from the U.S. and France.

Israeli intelligence said the missiles used in the mass attack came from the Adra Industrial City complex to the Northeast of Damascus.  In an attempt to maintain maximum unattributability Assad’s special chemical strike units had used an indigenously developed short-range attack missile. The Israelis estimated its maximum range to be no more than 30 kilometers.


The mysterious missiles that delivered the chemical weapons were nearly impossible to identify suggesting local production adding to their unattributable nature.

The plan was simple. The U.S. and French Counter WMD Special Operations team would covertly infiltrate Syria using trucks from Turkey. They would drive south toward the target in Adra where they would dismount and begin the assault. The objective was not to destroy the chemical weapon storage facility in Adra but to capture it intact and turn it over to a joint Free Syrian security team who would then grant access to chief chemical weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom’s team via UN disarmament chief Angela Kane.

“Special Operations” are called that because there is always a creative element to them. They don’t fit molds or mission templates exactly. This operation had a lot of sharp edges. Any op involving chemical weapons had an ominous aspect to it.

The assault team decided it would not use protective chemical suits. The suits would not facilitate the need to appear as indigenous personnel. The intelligence suggested they were attacking a storage facility, and that the chemical weapons would be “safed” or not assembled in their delivery state yet since it was dangerous even to store them in that state.

The trucks would deploy the assault team around the perimeter of the storage compound. The assault would open with precision shooters neutralizing guards, vehicles and even attempting to breech locks with their .50 caliber sniper rifles.

Under the cover of the sniper/spotters, four assault teams would approach the facility, one from each side.  To prevent a “Mexican firing squad” of deadly crossfire only one assault element would push through the target, from the high ground to the north, breeching the fence line with bolt cutters and breeching charges and then fanning out into the rows of storage buildings while the surrounding snipers provided what overwatch they could. Once the facility was seized the supporting international units would insert via helicopter. Included in their charges would be weapons investigators to verify the presence of the weapons and “fingerprint” the chemicals. They would also take possession of the unique delivery rockets from the U.S. commandos who seized the target.

As news of the seizure by the United Nations forces hit the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and MSNBC the U.S. team would already be extracting back to Lebanon and back to the ships they deployed from.

From → Defense Analysis

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