Wednesday night's GOP debate saw a lot of tough talk when it came to intervening in Syria, but a new report by the U.S. Central Command gives an ominous view of what destabilizing the Assad regime could mean for U.S. troop deployments. During the debate, Mitt Romney publicly backed arming the Syrian rebels in a deal brokered by the U.S. with its Middle East allies. "We need to work with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey to say, 'You guys provide the kind of weaponry that's needed to help the rebels inside Syria,'" the former Massachusetts governor said. But destabilizing President Bashar al-Assad's regime risks a different kind of threat that could embroil thousands of U.S. troops: The securing of Syria's chemical warfare facilities.
According to a new report by CNN, the U.S. military has calculated that more than 75,000 grounds troops would be required to secure Syria's chemical sites if they were left unguarded or looted. The estimate was calculated by U.S. Central Command as it's tasked with considering different military responses to an escalation in Syria. Currently, the Assad regime maintains control of its chemical facilities but that could change as rebels jockey for power. And securing the country's chemical stockpile would be particularly important given its size and the risk of it falling into the hands of extremists.
"Syria probably has one of largest programs in the world," Leonard Specter of the Monterey Institute of International Studies tells CNN. "It has multiple types of chemical agents." He ticked off a number of dangerous gases including nerve gas and World War I-era gases such as chlorine and phosgene.
Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress about the very real threat of the weapons getting into the wrong hands. "There would be kind of a vacuum that would lend itself to extremists operating in Syria, which is particularly troublesome in light of the large network of chemical warfare, (chemical biological weapons), weapon-storage facilities, and other related facilities that there are in Syria."
Of course, it's unlikely a hypothetical Romney administration would ever commit 75,000 troops to Syria (that's about as many as we currently have in Afghanistan, which would be politically unviable). Still, it's worth emphasizing the risks involved in escalating the conflict, as Central Command has done with its report this week. (Keep in mind, if such an effort was made to stabilize Syria's chemical facilities, other members of the international community would likely offer troop contributions.) As it stands, the Obama administration's position is to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict. However, according to reports, the administration is weighing the idea of arming the rebels.