Elite military teams from France, the United Kingdom and the United States have been deployed near violence-stricken Syria, where they are awaiting potential orders to move to seize and secure the Bashar Assad regime's chemical weapons, the London Times reported on Thursday.
The specialized Western forces have been deployed to neighboring states Israel, Jordan, and Turkey for in excess of 30 days, according to intelligence insiders.
The military teams would only enter Syria if it appears Damascus is readying chemical weapon attacks or the unconventional arms are in danger of being seized by opposition forces and other nonstate actors such as Hezbollah.
"The personnel are there, the equipment is there, the lift capability is there," an intelligence insider in the region told the Times. "There are people on the ground (inside Syria) assessing the logistics of landing and securing these [WMD] sites. Preparations are under way for a mission to secure and destroy these weapons."
The United States is understood to have prepared contingency plans for responding to a WMD crisis in Syria that could involve covert missions to stockpile facilities by special operation forces trained in handling chemical arms and targeted airstrikes aimed at minimizing the chance of harmful toxins escaping into the air when the arsenals are blown up.
Following a request by U.S. Central Command head Gen. James Mattis for two aircraft carriers in the Middle East, the USS John C. Stennis on Monday began making its way toward the USS Enterprise, according to the report.
Military preparations are being pursued "in case we confront a situation where Assad makes a terrible and horrific choice," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said to journalists.
President Obama earlier this week implicitly threatened U.S. military retaliation against the Assad regime should Damascus move to use chemical weapons, saying that such an act would breach a "red line." British Prime Minister David Cameron has also said his government would not tolerate any Syrian employment of chemical arms.
Syria has signed the Geneva Protocol, forbids the use of chemical weapons, but not the Chemical Weapons Convention, which additionally outlaws the production and stockpiling of such weapons of mass destruction. Little is publicly known about the country's chemical arsenal though it is understood to encompass hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents that can be delivered via rockets, ballistic missiles and other means.
There are believed to be four principal chemical agent manufacturing plants located not far from Hama, Homs, and Aleppo -- cities that have been the scenes of heated battles between rebel fighters and Assad loyalists. Less is known about the number and location of the regime's chemical depots; the Times cites assessments of close to 40 holding sites.
"Assad's departure, which, when it happens, risks complete anarchy, will pose serious risks in respect of chemical weapons security," an unidentified U.K. government insider said to the newspaper on Thursday.
"Ironically, the Assad regime has, give or take, been scrupulous in ensuring Syrian chemical weapons stocks remain secured. He has known the risk any use of them entails for many weeks," the source continued.
Protections around Syrian chemical sites were discussed by Turkish and U.S. officials this week as part of broader efforts to prepare for the anticipated eventual collapse of the Assad government, the New York Times reported.