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Pentagon Assessing Whether Israel Might Attack Syrian Chemical Weapons Sites

Syrian troops on Friday stand near burned cars after taking control of a section of Damascus from opposition fighters. The United States is in talks with a number of other nations regarding the threat posed by the Assad regime's chemical weapons amid spiraling conflict in Syria (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi). Syrian troops on Friday stand near burned cars after taking control of a section of Damascus from opposition fighters. The United States is in talks with a number of other nations regarding the threat posed by the Assad regime's chemical weapons amid spiraling conflict in Syria (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi).

The U.S. Defense Department is trying to determine the likelihood that Israel could carry out pre-emptive air assaults on Syria's chemical weapons facilities in order to head off the threat posed by such materials amid the intensifying internal effort to overthrow the Assad regime, CNN reported on Thursday (see GSN, July 19).

There have been major concerns since the Syrian uprising began last year that the government might use its chemical stocks against the resistance or that the situation might allow violent extremists to gain access to lethal blister and nerve agents. Those worries have escalated amid the mounting chaos, which is presently focused on the capital of Damascus.

The United States is concerned that Israel might decide it must unilaterally bomb Syria's chemical arsenal if it determines it faces a direct danger from the situation, a high-ranking Obama official said in an interview with the news agency.

Pentagon personnel are meeting with their Israeli opposites to discuss the matter and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is slated to travel to Israel in a few days for more talks on the Syria security situation, the unidentified official said.

The besieged regime of President Bashar Assad was reported last week to have relocated some of its chemical materials out of storage, but the intent of this move is not yet apparent. The government could be preparing them for use in an attack or shifting them to a more secure location.

In light of the rapidly developing situation, the United States has held a number of closed-door meetings with other concerned nations including France, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The discussions cover not only the 17-month long Syrian uprising against Assad but also the potential regime use of chemical weapons against opposition elements and the chances of local extremist organizations acquiring deadly materials if government security around its chemical stockpiles is weakened.

Top Pentagon officials in the last few days have also told their Russian opposites that the Kremlin must underline to Assad how critically important it is that the chemical weapons remain well-protected.

Defense Department spokesman George Little on Thursday said "we can't rule out the possibility" that Damascus could employ its chemical warfare agents, which are understood to include hundreds of tons of nerve and blister agents.

It would be particularly difficult for foreign militaries to take control of chemical arms within Syria, a number of U.S. armed forces officials told CNN.

Navigation coordinates would be needed for each of the country's numerous chemical sites as well as intelligence on their contents and any site protections. A constantly renewed stream of data would be needed  for this, but that is likely to be confined to information supplied by satellites, eavesdropped communications, and in-country human assets.

Syria's chemical facilities are spread out around the nation and a determination would need to be made on the potential for taking control of them all at one time.

In the event Assad is still in power or chaos is widespread, deploying military personnel to the facilities would be a highly risky mission. A frontal ground attack by troops could result in lengthy fighting.

The U.S. military would have to neutralize Syria's sophisticated air and missile defense system that includes antiaircraft interceptors and early warning monitors. Were chemical arms in motion or being prepared for usage, the regime's air defenses would need to removed within a few hours.

If a decision is made to destroy the chemical weapons in a bombing campaign, it would have to be done in such a way that does not cause poisonous chemical emissions to escape into the surrounding environment. For this to be achieved, a complete intelligence picture is needed about each of the chemical sites so an appropriate determination can be made on what types of munitions to use (Barbara Starr, CNN, July 19).

"There is no way of destroying all the stockpiles, and an attack may end up releasing some of the poisonous material and could cause very large collateral damage," ex-Israeli Brig. Gen Shlomo Brom said in an interview with the Financial Times. "When you attack such installations, you also give different forces exactly the opportunity to get their hands on what is left."

Possible Syrian-produced compact rockets loaded with chemical rounds are a particular proliferation risk as their small size would make them easier to steal following an airstrike on a depot, one Western official said (Financial Times, July 19).

CNN has learned that the U.S. military has agreed to assist in transporting elite Jordanian forces to chemical arms facilities in Syria if needed, but information was not available on the means of moving the Jordanian troops.

If U.S. military personnel are necessary to secure the sites, the Defense Department on short order would have to mobilize hundreds and possibly thousands of troops and make certain that they have a sufficient background in handling and guarding chemical warfare materials, according to CNN (Starr, CNN).

"There are almost certainly contingencies being worked up by the Pentagon, which is what you expect military planners to do, a high-ranking security official told the Financial Times. "But an intervention would be hugely difficult. you would only see this coming into play if things got extremely bad" (Financial Times, July 19).

CIA personnel have been sent to the Middle East to collect information about Syria's chemical weapons and other armaments, U.S. officials told the Daily Beast. 

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R -Mich.) declined to supply specifics on the intelligence resources that are focused on Syria or to confirm if any CIA officers are in-country. He stated that the United States recently fielded "the resources necessary to collect the information that we need to make a good decision on chemical and biological (weapons), opposition groups and leadership transition strategies."

At the same time, "we don't know nearly what we need to know to be completely effective if the regime were to implode tomorrow," the committee chairman said.

The CIA turned down Daily Beast requests for comment on Thursday (Eli Lake, Daily Beast, July 19).

Present and ex-Obama officials told Fox News that the United States and friendly foreign spy services have generally identified the whereabouts of the large majority of Syrian chemical sites and possible biological weapons facilities.

"We have a pretty good fix on where most of them are," said an ex-U.S. official (James Rosen, Fox News, July 19).

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday said his government is worried that Hezbollah or other regional extremist entities will attempt to acquire Syrian chemical arms, RIA Novosti reported.

"There are also people who came to Syria from outside -- from Global Jihad and al-Qaida and other Islamists -- meaning that as long as the fighting carries on we will have even greater chaos in Syria the day after Assad," the defense chief said.

"We are also closely tracking the possibility that Hezbollah will try to move advanced military platforms or chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon" (RIA Novosti, July 19).

Rebel fighters or extremist groups with aspirations of acquiring chemical weapons for their own use are likely to face serious technical challenges, according to Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Diversion by nonstate actors could be difficult and dangerous if they lacked the proper protective gear, training and logistical support," he wrote in an analysis quoted by the Financial Times.

"Bulk agent is stored in large containers that may be hard to move. ... Due to these complexities, local insurgent groups might not consider (chemical weapons) worth the effort to obtain" (Financial Times, July 19).

Damascus' stockpile of ballistic missiles that can fire chemical warheads is another threat. The weapons are bulky, making them difficult to steal and smuggle across borders, but they have the potential to cause massive harm if launched at neighbors such as Israel or Turkey.

Syria is understood to hold three kinds of high-altitude missiles equipped to deliver chemical agents, Wired magazine quoted James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies arms expert Jeffrey Lewis as saying.

The regime has SS-21 and Scud  missiles purchased from North Korea as well as Fateh 110 missiles that might have come from Iran. The SS-21 and Fateh missiles can respectively travel up to 120 miles and 50 miles while the Scud missiles can reach targets as far away as 400 miles. All three missile variants can also be moved around by train or truck but they lack guidance systems, so they have extremely low precision.

A number of sources estimate Syria possesses 100 to 300 Scud missiles, about 200 SS-21 missiles and likely a maximum of 50 Fateh missiles.

Though the Scuds are old, "undoubtedly some are in working condition," Lewis said, pointing out that "the Libyans took terrible care of their Scuds and were still able [to] fire a few off towards the end."

Were Damascus to launch Scuds at Israel, Tel Aviv's Patriot and Arrow missile interceptors should be able to counter the attack (David Axe, Wired, July 19).

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