A concerted public and behind-the-scenes effort by the United States, Russia, and other nations in late 2012 appeared to give Syria pause as the Assad government moved toward readiness to carry out a chemical arms strike, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Surveillance satellites in late November showed signs that sarin precursor materials were being combined and loaded into aerial munitions for a possible airstrike. After Israel took this information to the United States, President Obama publicly threatened that Assad would be "held accountable" for any chemical weapons use against the opposition forces that since 2011 have fought to topple his regime.
Even more forceful warnings were communicated to Damascus through Russia, Turkey, Iraq and other nations. The forceful international lobbying campaign seemingly persuaded the Syrian military in early December to halt preparations for a chemical attack.
"I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war," an unidentified high-ranking U.S. defense official said. "What Assad understood, and whether that understanding changes if he gets cornered in the next few months, that's anyone's guess."
The prepared sarin bombs are being kept in depots not far from Syrian military air fields and could be quickly loaded onto aircraft for a bombing campaign, according to officials. As little as four to six hours would be needed to carry out an airstrike once the order has been given, according to the December classified findings of the chief of Germany's intelligence agency. Some officials from the United States and other nations believe it would not take longer than two hours to mount a chemical attack.
"Let's just say right now, it would be a relatively easy thing to load this quickly onto aircraft," an anonymous Western envoy told the Times.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Free Syrian Army's combined military command rebutted recent claims that rebels are in possession of the precursor materials and technical know-how to produce chemical weapons that could be used in retaliation to a Syrian military chemical attack, the Turkish World Bulletin website reported last week.