As Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power steadily weakens, U.S. officials are increasingly worried that Syria’s weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists, rogue generals or other uncontrollable factions.
Last week, fighters from a group that the Obama administration has branded a terrorist organization were among rebels who seized the Sheik Suleiman military base near Aleppo, where research on chemical weapons had been conducted. Rebels are also closing in on another base near Aleppo, known as Safirah, which has served as a major production center for such munitions, according to U.S. officials and analysts.
The opposition Free Syrian Army said it did not find any chemical weapons at the first installation. But the developments have fanned fears that even if Assad does not attack his own people with chemical weapons, he is on the verge of losing control of his formidable arsenal.
A former Syrian general who once led the army’s chemical weapons training program said that the main storage sites for mustard gas and nerve agents are supposed to be guarded by thousands of Syrian troops but that they would be easily overrun.
The sites are not secure, retired Maj. Gen. Adnan Silou, who defected to the opposition in June, said in an interview near Turkey’s border with Syria. “Probably anyone from the Free Syrian Army or any Islamic extremist group could take them over,” he said.
President Obama and other leaders have warned Assad not to use chemical weapons, saying such a move would be a “red line” that would force them to take military action. But the White House has been vague about whether and how it would respond if Assad is toppled and Syria’s chemical weapons are left unprotected or end up in the hands of anti-
The Pentagon has drawn up plans for responding to possible scenarios involving Syria’s chemical arms, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Friday during a visit to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border. He declined to give details.
Defense officials, however, said in interviews that they have been updating their contingency plans in recent weeks as chaos has overtaken Syria. They said they are working closely with Israel, Jordan and NATO allies, including Turkey, to monitor dozens of sites where Syria is suspected of keeping chemical arms and to coordinate options to intervene if necessary.
Pentagon officials have described their plans to members of Congress in classified briefings. In public, military officials have indicated that they are preparing for potential joint operations with the Jordanian and Turkish armed forces, while sharing intelligence with Israel. U.S. officials also have sought to enlist the cooperation of Russia, which has a close military relationship with Syria and helped develop its chemical weapons program decades ago.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government and some European allies have hired private contractors to train Syrian rebels how to monitor and secure chemical weapons sites should Assad abandon or lose control of any of his stocks, according to CNN. A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.
“It’s safe to say it will take an international effort to secure the weapons,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. Shaheen said she was “confident” about the administration’s contingency planning but warned that the task was formidable.
Shaheen noted that Panetta has described the challenge of securing Syria’s chemical cache as “100 times worse” than was required to safeguard Libya’s arsenal of chemical and conventional weapons after Moammar Gaddafi was toppled last year by a NATO-backed rebellion.
“What is challenging is that we have a situation that we don’t have control over,” she said. “The fighting is much more intense.”
In Libya, Gaddafi had a much smaller chemical stockpile, mostly precursor ingredients for mustard gas. Unlike Syria, Libya had signed an international treaty under which it had declared its chemical warfare materials and begun destroying them. Even so, in January, international inspectors discovered an undeclared cache of chemical munitions.
In a potential lesson for planning on Syria, the United States, NATO and other allies also were unable to secure Libya’s extensive stockpiles of rocket launchers and other conventional weapons, many of which were seized by militias or smuggled out of the country.
Although the Obama administration has been reluctant to become involved in the Syrian civil war beyond providing nonlethal aid to some rebel groups, nonproliferation analysts said no other country is likely to be able to supply enough trained personnel and specialized equipment to secure and dismantle the arsenal of chemical weapons.