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Giant Military Force May be Needed to Lock Down Syrian Chemical Arms

In a Syrian state media photo, black smoke pours from the site of a Wednesday bomb explosion in Damascus. The United States and allied nations estimate it could require tens of thousands of foreign troops to secure Syria's chemical- and suspected biological-weapon facilities (Syrian Arab News Agency). In a Syrian state media photo, black smoke pours from the site of a Wednesday bomb explosion in Damascus. The United States and allied nations estimate it could require tens of thousands of foreign troops to secure Syria's chemical- and suspected biological-weapon facilities (Syrian Arab News Agency).

The Obama administration and friendly governments are considering a situation in which the United States and other nations would have to send tens of thousands of military personnel into conflict-wracked Syria to seize and guard various WMD facilities, Reuters reported on Thursday (see GSN, Aug. 13).

The closed-door brainstorming sessions involve a scenario in which the government collapses and loyalist military forces guarding the country's chemical and suspected biological weapon installations flee their posts, leaving the unconventional arms at risk for theft by nonstate actors such as Hezbollah, unidentified U.S. and foreign foreign affairs sources told the news agency. That situation presupposes that obliterating airstrikes on the WMD sites are not an option due to worries about the release into the environment of deadly poisons and disease materials.

"There could be second-order effects that could be extremely problematic," an anonymous Obama official said of the aftermath of an airstrike.

Washington at present has no intention of deploying military forces to Syria, the Obama official told Reuters. "There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worse-case scenario."

Two unidentified diplomatic insiders said a foreign force as large as 50,000-60,000 land-deployed troops plus assisting personnel could be required to fully secure all of Syria's unconventional arms materials. 

The diplomats emphasized that such an international force would only be in Syria to protect its weapons of mass destruction, not to intervene in the ongoing 17 month rebellion against Damascus.

It is not yet apparent how such an international armed force would be formed and which countries would supply troops. Several European countries have already signaled they would probably not be involved, the diplomatic insiders said.

The United States, Russia, and other nations have repeatedly stressed to the Bashar Assad regime the importance of protecting its chemical arsenal, which is understood to include hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents that can be delivered in attacks by missiles, rockets, and aerial munitions.

The chemical warfare materials are understood to be spread out at a number of sites around the country. However, there have been reports in recent weeks of some components being relocated by the Syrian military, purportedly to move them away from scenes of intense fighting between regime soldiers and opposition fighters.

The Obama administration would not provide details of crisis response plans for Syria.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that while the administration continues to conclude Syrian chemical arms are being guarded, "given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime's increasing attacks on the Syrian people, we remain very concerned about these weapons."

Damascus in recent weeks issued a statement vowing it would not use chemical or biological weapons in domestic attacks but left open the possibility of WMD strikes on international forces looking to intervene in the conflict.

"In addition to monitoring their stockpiles, we are actively consulting with Syria's neighbors -- and our friends in the international community -- to underscore our common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government's obligation to secure them," Reuters quoted Vietor as saying (Hosenball/Stewart, Reuters, Aug. 16).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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