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U.S. Could Send Elite Units to Seize Syrian Chemical Weapons Stockpiles

Children play on a wrecked tank near the Syrian city of Aleppo on Wednesday. The U.S. Defense Department has developed contingency plans for the Syrian crisis that could involve using elite military teams to secure chemical depots, according to a newspaper report (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen). Children play on a wrecked tank near the Syrian city of Aleppo on Wednesday. The U.S. Defense Department has developed contingency plans for the Syrian crisis that could involve using elite military teams to secure chemical depots, according to a newspaper report (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen).

The U.S. Defense Department has developed strategies that call for placing limited numbers of elite military units in Syria should the Obama administration determine that quick action is needed to prevent a chemical weapons crisis from occurring, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday.

The president earlier this week issued the sternest warning yet to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, implicitly threatening a U.S. military retaliation should an attempt be made to employ chemical weapons against opposition forces in the 18-month-long rebellion.

Unidentified Obama officials later clarified that the United States would likely only mount a large-level incursion as part of a broader multinational intervention. "You shouldn't interpret what Obama said to mean there would be automatic military action, but rather that we would respond as part of an international effort," a high-ranking official said.

Still, the president could order deployment of elite response teams in order to prevent unconventional arms from being acquired by criminal elements or extremist groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah. That possibility is receiving more attention from Defense Department analysts than concerns about a regime-sponsored chemical weapons attack, according to the Times.

Up-to-date information on the makeup and layout of Syria's substantial chemical stockpile is hard to come by, though unpiloted aircraft and reconnaissance satellites are able to gather some information. The arsenal is understood to be comprised of hundreds of tons of mustard blister agent and sarin and VX nerve agents that can be dispersed in attacks via artillery rounds, missiles and other means.

The number of Syrian chemical weapon-related sites has been estimated at more than 20. Four manufacturing plants are said located not far from Hama, Homs, and Aleppo -- cities that have been hotbeds of violence in the ongoing effort to overthrow the Assad regime.

A U.S. operation is likely to encompass targeted air attacks that would seek to destroy the chemical agents without releasing harmful toxins into the environment and secret incursions by military personnel with specialized skills in disarming chemical weapons, high-ranking U.S. officials told the Times.

"We have done contingency planning but we're not doing detailed planning -- identifying numbers (of troops), units and platforms -- until the White House tells us we need a specific plan for this," a high-ranking official said.

Officials admitted that though the United States is doing what it can to keep tabs on Syria's chemical depots, the potential exists for some compact agent-filled artillery rounds to be removed from the arsenals without detection.

The United States and regional ally Turkey on Thursday held initial "operational planning" discussions on how end Assad's rule, Agence France-Presse reported.

The bilateral talks were anticipated to focus on aligning the two nations' diplomatic, information gathering, and armed forces activities on Syria. Additionally, the two sides are expected to talk about crisis strategies that would include responding to a chemical strike, which would be likely to cause a mass influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey and other border nations.

Separately, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday spoke by phone with Obama, Agence France-Presse also reported. The two leaders agreed that "the use -- or threat -- of chemical weapons [by the Assad regime] was completely unacceptable and would force them to revise their approach so far," according to the prime minister's office.

Russia on Thursday said it was collaborating with the Syrian government to deal with any potential threats to the protection of the chemical arsenal, the Associated Press reported.

"We have guarantees from the Syrian government that it will not take any steps involving chemical weapons," said Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, echoing earlier statements from Moscow. "And I want to reiterate that on this issue we will restrain it in all ways possible and work toward the goal of preventing such things from happening."

There is regular contact between Moscow and Washington on the situation, Gatilov said.

NTI Analysis

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