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In U.S. Debate on Syria, Chemical Arms Threat Cuts Both Ways

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Syrian government troops fire at rebel fighters in a Damascus suburb on Sunday. Lawmakers and issue experts expressed varying opinions on Wednesday about how possible U.S. steps to intervene in Syria's civil war might affect the security of chemical weapons held by the Assad regime (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi). Syrian government troops fire at rebel fighters in a Damascus suburb on Sunday. Lawmakers and issue experts expressed varying opinions on Wednesday about how possible U.S. steps to intervene in Syria's civil war might affect the security of chemical weapons held by the Assad regime (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi).

WASHINGTON -- Testimony on Capitol Hill this week underscored the complicated nature of the chemical weapons threat in Syria.

“Chemical weapons in the hands of a regime willing to use them against the people of Syria is the circumstance that's staring us in the face right now,” Frederic Hof, U.S. special adviser for transition in Syria, told a Wednesday hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

Still, Hof said he is “skeptical even in those circumstances” of the notion that there will be any deployment of U.S. ground forces to seize chemical arms from Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Atlantic Council fellow was responding to a question by Representative Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who had asked if Assad’s government could cross any threshold that might lead to “boots on the ground.” The Obama administration in June tied indications of sarin strikes by Assad loyalists to its plans to arm Syrian resistance fighters.

Congress, though, has held up weapons shipments to rebel forces. Damascus denies using chemical weapons and has received Moscow’s support in pushing to stringently limit the freedom of international inspectors to investigate related claims inside Syrian borders.

Assad’s military is widely suspected of using sarin nerve agent in the country’s civil war, now in its third year. At the same time, the Syrian and Russian governments have alleged that opposition forces have unleashed one or more chemical attacks.

Some lawmakers and issue experts have said that U.S. military assistance that results in weaker regime control could ultimately land the dangerous arms somewhere even worse.

While “Assad has used chemical weapons, certainly some of the people that are trying to get those weapons [would] use them in a much broader” manner, said Representative Austin Scott (R-Ga.). “Immediately after they get those weapon systems … they'll hit Israel and they'll hit our other allies with them. So how do we secure the chemical weapons after Assad is gone?”

The Defense Department since late last year has been formulating plans to secure Syria’s chemical arms in conjunction with U.S. allies.

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