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Syria's chemical weapons aren't a simple target

Sunday, 1 Sep 2013 | 6:09 AM ET
USS Ramage
Source: US Navy
USS Ramage

U.S. President Barack Obama sent draft legislation to Congress late Saturday requesting approval to use military force in Syria to "deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for, further uses of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction."

It comes on the back of a speech from the White House earlier, announcing the decision to proceed with an attack on "Syrian regime targets" based on the administration's confidence in reports provided by its intelligence agencies as to who was to blame for the atrocities of August 21 in Damascus.

Although he insisted the action would be limited "in duration and scope", the stated goal to "prevent or deter" chemical weapons is unlikely to simply include airstrikes. That's what his own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said in a letter outlining his independent evaluation to the Armed Services Committee of the Senate on the use of military force in Syria on July 19.

(Slideshow: Syria conflict: The military hardware)

The option of controlling chemical weapons in Syria would be done, Dempsey explained, by destroying "portions of Syria's massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components." To achieve that, the minimum requirement would necessitate a no-fly zone "as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers."

But that's not all. Dempsey added that "thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites." A price tag was also included: An average cost of more than one billion dollars a month.

Controlling chemical weapons in Syria means just that Dempsey was clear about the limited ability to fully control Syria's "storage and delivery systems", which could prove to be a boon for extremists.

(Read More: What a Syria strike would look like)

"Risks are similar to the no-fly one with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground," the letter notes.

Syria is also likely to have ramped up stockpile defenses, in light the deepening civil war and even a UN resolution, adopted by the General Assembly, as far back as August 2012 demanding Syrian authorities "account for and secure all chemical and biological weapons and any related material."

Together with Egypt, Syria is one of five countries not to have signed the 1993 Convention on Chemical Weapons.That is why assessments of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal vary greatly, but they are understood to be among the larger stockpiles in the world. Proximity to urban centers further poses tremendous risks for collateral damage and civilian casualties.

In his speech, Obama reiterated there were no plans to send in troops, acknowledging that Americans were "weary of war" after Afghanistan and Iraq.

By contrast, Dempsey had warned of spiraling commitments. "Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

Meanwhile, UN weapons inspectors delivered samples taken in Damascus for analysis in the Netherlands.

"The Secretary General looks forward to receiving the missions findings as soon as possible so he can promptly present the results to member states and to the Security Council," Martin Nesirky, UN spokesman for the Secretary General, said during a press conference.

Comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin hint that simply presenting evidence that chemical weapons were used, rather than by whom, will be not be enough for a unanimous go-ahead from the Security Council.

By CNBC's Yousef Gamal El-Din. Follow him on Twitter @youseftv