The U.S. Defense Department has informed the White House it could take more than 75,000 military personnel to secure Syria's chemical arsenal, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
The large number of troops the U.S. Central Command and Joint Staff project as necessary raises doubts that the U.S. military could move expeditiously to avert a chemical weapons crisis in Syria.
President Obama this summer said his "red line" for approving U.S. military intervention in Syria's brutal 20-month civil war would be if dictator Bashar Assad mounts or appears to be preparing to mount a chemical strike. The Obama administration would not discuss the Pentagon’s force projection, the Times reported.
“The problem is that you can’t just pick this stuff up and ship it out of the country,” said one unidentified high-ranking official familiar with the matter. There are concerns that chemical agents might seep out of their degrading containers, poisoning the surrounding environment, or that certain actors might conduct strikes on the weapons in transit.
Due to these concerns, it is probable that many of the chemical weapons would have to be eliminated in their present locations. Chemical disarmament is a time-consuming and risky undertaking that would necessitate a significant military guard force during operations.
Another official, though, did not believe the full Syrian chemical arsenal must not be moved. Some arms might be transported by air for disposal at another location or dumped in the sea. “There are several options, but all carry varying degrees of risk," the source said.
Syrian opposition fighters who have received U.S. assistance have been called on to identify and protect any chemical facilities they encounter, the official said.
Syria is believed to have hundreds of tons of chemical warfare materials, but the number of related facilities remains in question. The CIA projects there are roughly 36 chemical arms sites, while the Pentagon puts the count at close to 50, the Times reported.
The Assad regime's chemical weapons reportedly include mustard gas and sarin nerve agent that can be delivered in attacks by ballistic missiles, air-dropped munitions and artillery rounds.
The Defense Department has not yet received orders to prepare specific procedures for taking control of Syria's chemical arms, anonymous military officials told the newspaper. There are, however, emergency scenario procedures for seizing and protecting a restricted quantity of Syrian chemical sites that would necessitate fewer U.S. boots on the ground.
The revelation that Lebanon-based Hezbollah has established outposts not far from some Syrian chemical sites has raised fears that further instability in the violence-wracked country could enable rogue actors to gain possession of some warfare materials. Hezbollah remains allied with Damascus and some of its militants have been drilling at "a limited number of these sites," according to a high-ranking U.S. official who has been informed on recent findings. "But the fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern."
The Syrian army is understood to continue to maintain high security around its chemical sites.
To date, there have been no signs Hezbollah is attempting to take possession of Syrian chemical weapons. The organization might have made the tactical decision to post fighters not far from chemical sites in the belief that Western military forces would not mount aerial attacks on their camps for fear of accidentally releasing lethal agents, some officials believe.
Damascus has promised not to use its chemical weapons against opposition forces but has left open the option of deploying them against foreign nations seeking to intervene in the civil war. The recent Syrian cross-border shelling into Israel and Turkey has prodded the U.S. government into recalculating the potential for the Syrian conflict to swamp its neighbors.
Obama on Wednesday said his administration was frequently communicating with Jordan, Turkey “and obviously Israel, which is having already grave concerns as we do about, for example, movements on chemical weapons that might occur in such a chaotic atmosphere and that could have an impact not just within Syria but on the region as a whole.”
Ankara is anticipated to formally request the redeployment of Patriot missile interceptors along its border with Syria.
Washington's worries that Damascus might be preparing to deploy its chemical weapons are not helped by the Assad regime’s ongoing efforts to obtain missile components. Hundreds of North Korean-origin graphite cylinders that can be utilized in ballistic missiles were seized in May at a South Korean seaport on their way to Syria.
The high degree of instability in Syria does not make it easy to get a good reading on the state of the nation's missile arsenal. Some experts fear Damascus might renege on its promise not to use chemical weapons against the opposition if it feels it has no other option to stave off regime collapse.
“There is credible information that the Assad regime has been upgrading and expanding its chemical weapons arsenal, which needs to be maintained,” International Institute for Strategic Studies regional expert Emile Hokayem said in an interview. “A credible delivery capability is also needed, hence the North Korean angle.”