U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said intelligence suggesting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is weighing potential employment of his chemical arsenal is worrisome, Reuters reported.
"I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances -- in particular on Damascus -- that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons," the Pentagon chief said to journalists.
"The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered," Panetta said without elaborating.
Anonymous U.S. officials this week said the Syrian military had taken steps to mix the precursor ingredients for sarin nerve gas and load them into aerial bombs that could be dropped by fighter planes. There has been no sign yet, according to the officials, of an imminent air attack or that Assad has given final authorization for one, only that chemical weapon preparations have been ordered.
President Obama earlier this week said the use by Damascus of chemical weapons would cross a red line that would be met with unspecified consequences. Panetta on Thursday reiterated the president's threat but told reporters he would not "speculate or comment on what those potential consequences would be."
The Obama administration appears to have changed what specifically constitutes its "red line" with regard to Syrian chemical weapons, the New York Times reported. In August, Obama told reporters "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around" or actually being used.
However, the intelligence this week of chemical weapons being prepared -- suggesting that an attack could take place as soon as an order from Assad is given -- indicates the U.S. government has narrowed its calculus on what merits an intervention in the bloody 21-month civil war.
"The president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences ... if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people," Panetta said on Thursday.
The Obama administration said it had not shifted its stance on its red line. White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor on Thursday said when the president in August referred to chemical arms "moving around," he meant their spread to extremist organizations such as Hezbollah, which has maintained relations with Damascus.
The language tightrope the U.S. government has had to walk over its "red line" illustrates the complexity of the situation, according to the Times.
"We're kind of boxed in," an anonymous Obama official said. "There's an issue of presidential credibility here. But our options [for intervention] our quite limited."
An air bombing campaign on Syria's chemical facilities cannot be carried out in a safe manner, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. An air raid could lead to the release of toxic chemicals into the environment and the poisoning of nearby civilians. As a number of weapon depots are located close to Jordan, residents in that country could be put at risk from drifting chemical agent particles. An air raid also might not destroy all of the targeted materials.
Deploying military ground forces in Syria has never been considered a viable plan, U.S. officials say.
Israel is unlikely to intervene "unless we thought Hezbollah might get their hands on these weapons," a high-ranking Israeli official told the newspaper. "But we've proven we are willing to do it, and probably more than the Americans."'
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has sent a letter to Assad, pressing him to refrain from ordering chemical attacks, Reuters reported.
The U.N. chief also spoke by telepohone with Ahmet Uzumcu, who heads the organization that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. "The secretary general informed (Uzumcu) that he has written again to President [Assad] urging him to refrain from the use of any such weapons under any circumstances and underscoring the fundamental responsibility of the Syrian government to ensure the safety and security of any such stockpiles," a U.N. press release states.
Syria is not a member to the 188-nation accord that bars the development, production, stockpiling or use of chemical warfare materials such as nerve and blister agents. The nation is believed to hold hundreds of tons of such agents, along with various delivery systems.
Uzumcu, who heads the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in a letter to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called on Damascus to rapidly join the convention, an OPCW release states.
"In making this appeal, I have drawn attention to the fact that the international community has advanced significantly towards the total elimination of chemical weapons from the world and that the possibility of their use is completely contrary to global sentiment, which is united in condemning chemical weapons as abhorrent," Uzumcu said in the release.
"I have also recalled the fact that, as a [state] party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Syria has accepted the legal obligation to respect the universally endorsed norm against the use of chemical weapons," he continued.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday met with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the margins of a Dublin security forum. Moscow this week signaled it could withdraw its backing of Damascus, Reuters reported.
Syrian opposition members in Turkey interviewed by USA Today were critical of this week's international furor over possible chemical weapons attacks. "I don't think the regime will use chemical weapons -- it's just a media game for the purpose of prolonging the revolution, so the Syrian people become more divided and the regime has more time," activist Walat Ahmae said.
IHS Jane's Middle East analyst David Hartwell questioned whether the United States had the intelligence capabilities to detect the reported Syrian military preparations for a chemical attack. "It is an incredibly detailed piece of information that even for someone in the intelligence community would be difficult to come by -- although it's not impossible," he said.
Damascus has repeatedly said it would under no circumstances carry out chemical attacks on rebel forces though it has left open the possibility of WMD strikes on invading foreign militaries.
"I still think the regime in Syria is fairly rational in the respect of using chemical weapons, and I think the Western concerns are more centered on Islamists and Salafist groups getting hold of the weapons than the Assad government actually using them," Hartwell said.