The Syrian government's alleged chemical attack on its people has brought the Obama administration and the world to the precipice of war. The proliferation of photos and personal accounts depicting the deaths of at least 1,100 Syrians leaves the international community desperate to separate President Bashar al-Assad from his chemical weapons stockpile. But in reviewing the intervention options, we must examine the United States' history of eliminating chemical munitions, which exposes the military's dismal environmental and social justice track record of weapons disposal.
Surgical airstrikes targeting Assad's chemical weapons facilities may be imminent following President Barack Obama's positioning of four Navy destroyers with cruise missiles in the Mediterranean Sea. The Gulf War showed the dangers of such action. CIA assessments noted a number of inadvertent chemical releases following U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, including the bombing of Al Muthanna -- Saddam Hussein's primary chemical production facility -- which discharged nerve agents and mustard gas. U.N. inspectors visiting the Muhammadiyat Ammunition Storage Depot after the war also reported finding hundreds of sarin-filled bombs damaged and leaking from allied bombing.
Though U.S. military capabilities include specifically designed "agent defeat weapons," an air campaign is complicated because the whereabouts of Syria's stockpile of mustard gas, VX gas and sarin nerve agent -- perhaps the largest in the Middle East -- is widely unknown. Due to the high temperatures necessary to safely combust hazardous materials, indirect bomb strikes risk unintentionally deploying, rather than dismantling, chemical munitions.
Airstrikes represent a partial solution at best. To ensure complete elimination, special forces must confiscate chemical munitions from within Syria, an option Gen. Martin Dempsey outlined in a letter to Congress this July. Ahead of such action, a Maryland-based army unit specializing in chemical munitions recovery is training in nearby Jordan.
Just locating and securing chemical weapons inside Syria poses significant risks to U.S. forces. But the subsequent fate of recovered weapons has historically proven problematic.
Until 1972, when Congress outlawed it, the primary disposal method for chemical weapons was ocean dumping. In a 2001 Army report, 74 cases of dumping across all five oceans were recorded. Notable examples include more than 60,000 gallons of arsenic trichloride and 75,000 mustard shells jettisoned into the Atlantic by the Navy in 1945, and 20 drums of cyanide sunk in 1962.
Today, little is known about the dumping locations or the risks associated with latent chemical weapons. Though the military argues that the vastness of the ocean is sufficient to dilute discarded weapons, cases of exposure have been common. Between 1946 and 1997, Italian scientists documented 232 mustard-related injuries -- including five deaths -- after chemical materials were ensnared in fishing nets or disturbed by dredging operations.
The U.S. military has land-based incineration facilities as an alternative method of chemical weapons disposal. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterizes incineration as safe, communities near U.S. disposal facilities accuse the government of environmental injustice and ethno-economic discrimination. Of the five primary facilities, two (Anniston, Ala., and Pine Bluff, Ark.) were built in low-income, predominantly African American communities, and two others (Tooele, Utah and Umatilla, Ala.) operated on or near American Indian reservations.
Residents of these communities have complained of chemical releases and high rates of disease. The Toxics Release Inventory National Report, released by the Department of Defense in 1994, for example, reported 721,364 pounds of toxins emitted from the Pine Bluff arsenal.
So, U.S. decision makers are on tricky moral ground. To forgo military intervention is to abandon the Syrian people at the moment of their greatest vulnerability. Inaction would send a message to the world -- that geopolitics and tactical uncertainty continue to trump the defense of basic human rights and the prevention of crimes against humanity.
Yet to pursue the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is to ignore history's lessons. Existing avenues of weapons disposal have proved ineffective, even counterproductive. Removing Assad's weapons does not justify the poisoning of our oceans and air. Amid mounting pressure, it will be the responsibility of our leaders and the media to refrain from a short-sighted solution. If we are serious about disarming Assad, we must do so in a socially and ecologically conscious way.
Jacob Glass is a blog contributor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Environmental Change and Security Program. He is a recent graduate of Muhlenberg College. This piece originally appeared in The Courant.