Drawing from my experience serving 9 years in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRND) for the U.S. Army, here is a rundown of the options available for destroying chemical weapons with a look at the feasibility of different methods and the complications that each entails.

An air campaign could focus on eliminating chemical munitions, military chemical units, chemical weapons production facilities, any or all of the above. The first step is to identify the targets and fix their locations. Since the first mentions of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in July 2012, U.S. intelligence has been tracking the movements of Syria’s chemical assets. There is a ready supply of human intelligence from rebel forces and refugees, a steady stream of signals intercepts from Syrian government forces, and near constant visual surveillance using aerial imagery platforms. Social media and news reports from inside Syria also provide open-source intelligence.

Syria is reported to have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Locating all of these munitions, even with the best intelligence available, will not be easy. Syria is also known to store chemical agents in“binary” form, where two components of the chemical agent are stored separately and only mixed before being loaded into munitions. This makes transport safer and simpler but can vastly expand the number of targets that need to be located and destroyed and makes them easier to conceal.

Syria’s chemical weapons-production facilities are reported to be located near major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, while munitions are stored at as many as 50 different sites. As the U.S. prepares for an attack, the regime is likely spreading munitions across cities throughout the country, making detection more difficult, necessitating more strikes, and increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Some intelligence reports indicate that the Assad regime lacks the ability to produce certain necessary precursor ingredients, but Syria stockpiled chemicals from European suppliers before export controls became effective. It also doesn’t take much to create many of the chemical agents used; they can be produced by anyone with an advanced chemistry degree given a moderately equipped refinement facility. Targeting Syria’s production facilities is possible, but will be difficult. Tracking movements of Syrian military chemical units and weapons platforms capable of firing chemical munitions would be an easier task.

The hardest part comes after the munitions are located. Once the targets are acquired they must be destroyed without releasing the deadly chemical agents— it’s possible but a bit like bombing a paint factory at long range and expecting not to have any splatter.

Syrian chemical units and their launchers can be targeted using airstrikes, drones, or cruise missiles launched from naval vessels. However, given the likelihood that the Syrians have intentionally moved these weapons systems into populated areas, even precise strikes on them could lead to civilian casualties. On a larger scale, there is also the danger that an attack on launchers loaded with chemical munitions could spread toxic substances as far as Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan or into the Mediterranean Sea.

Other than weapon systems and facilities, Syrian soldiers working in chemical units are another likely target for attack. The troops in these units are usually outfitted in identifiable protective gear for their own safety, a clear indicator of the presence of chemical agents and their impending use.

The care America takes in eliminating its own chemical weapons reflects how dangerous the process is, even when it’s done in a safe and controlled environment. Since 1986, the protocol has been to incinerate the agent at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or to neutralize it using hot water and a caustic compound. After the destructive phase, the next step involves extensive monitoring and testing of air, water, and soil to ensure no residual release.

Simply dropping a conventional bomb on an ammo dump is not a solution. Besides the initial deadly effect of dispersing chemical agents, their release into air, soil, and water can have severe health effects for years down the road.

While they may have a better chance of destroying chemical munitions without releasing their agents, the blast and heat generated by thermobaric weapons are intensely deadly. Structures near the blast will be destroyed and persons not killed by the initial explosion or flying debris will suffer lethal damage to internal organs caused by the pressure wave it creates.

The ability to safely destroy large stocks of chemical agents with airstrikes is still unconfirmed, though it is theoretically possible. Testing that method now requires accepting that even relative success may mean killing thousands of the very Syrian civilians we would be acting to protect. As the American people and Congress consider the proposals for action made by the president and his cabinet they should be aware of the chances for success, the risks, and the potential cost in lives.

 The Daily Beast