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U.S. Cautious on Israel Attacking Syrian Chemical Sites

A Syrian state television image purported to show government troops fighting against opposition forces in Damascus on Wednesday. U.S. officials fear the Assad regime’s loosening grip on power could prompt Israel to employ military force against Syrian chemical weapons facilities, according to a Wednesday news report (AP Photo/Syrian State Television). A Syrian state television image purported to show government troops fighting against opposition forces in Damascus on Wednesday. U.S. officials fear the Assad regime’s loosening grip on power could prompt Israel to employ military force against Syrian chemical weapons facilities, according to a Wednesday news report (AP Photo/Syrian State Television).

The U.S. government is worried about the potential for Israel to mount an attack on neighbor Syria's chemical weapon sites amid other hurried emergency response planning to handle the increasingly probable fall of the long-ruling Assad regime, the New York Times reported on Wednesday (see GSN, July 18).

The report came alongside reports of intense fighting in the Syrian capital and a Wednesday suicide bombing that killed three top government officials, including the defense minister.

The Obama administration fears the escalating fighting could push the government to use chemical warfare agents against its foes or that terrorists might he able to obtain lethal mustard or nerve agents if security around the stockpiles is compromised.

U.S. military officials were in discussions with their Israeli counterparts on the possibility of Tel Aviv moving to eliminate Syrian chemical sites, two Obama officials told the Times. Israel in 2007 used an air attack to destroy a Syrian structure that is widely suspected to have housed an unfinished plutonium production reactor (see GSN, June 6). The White House is not pushing for another similar strike out of worry it could enable Damascus to refresh its strength on the basis of outside meddling.

White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon traveled to Israel this past weekend for talks that addressed the Syria situation, according to an Obama official.

Any advantages of an Israeli strike on Syria's chemical depots would need to be measured against the likelihood that Damascus would leverage the attack for its own ends, one-time U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told the Times.

The current Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Program head and certain Obama officials believe the Syrian government would only mount chemical attacks if it has no other options. "But it crosses a red line, and changes the whole nature of the discussion," Indyk said. "There would be strong, if not overwhelming sentiment, internationally, to stop him" (Helene Cooper, New York Times, July 18).

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his British equivalent, Philip Hammond, discussed the Syria situation in Washington on Wednesday. Appearing at a Center for a New American Security luncheon later in the day, Hammond  noted that "Syria has a very significant stock of chemical weapons that are dispersed over a wide number of sites. The very worst outcome for the international community would be deterioration into chaos of the situation in Syria."

"It is clear that all members of the international community including Russia and China have a shared interest in making sure that those chemical-weapon stocks remain safely under lock-and-key and under proper control," the British defense secretary said.

Moscow and Beijing have refused so far to back any forceful U.N. Security Council resolution that demands President Bashar Assad give up power. Russia in particular continues to maintain close contacts with the Assad regime.

"I think right now using our diplomatic efforts to persuade those who have the greatest influence with the regime that orderly transition is in the best interests of the world, is the right way forward and that is what we are both pursuing," Hammond said of U.S. and U.K. efforts to achieve an end to the violence in Syria (Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire, July 19).

President Obama spoke by the phone on Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders "agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation," according to a White House statement. "They noted the differences our governments have had on Syria, but agreed to have their teams continue to work toward a solution" (White House release, July 18).

One day later, China and Russia blocked another U.N. Security Council resolution intended to increase pressure on the Assad regime, Agence France-Presse reported.

"The Security Council has failed utterly in its most important task on the agenda this year," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said after the Thursday decision.

"We will intensify our work with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need," Rice added.

She echoed other Obama officials in saying Damascus would be "held accountable" if members of the resistance are subjected to chemical arms attacks.

"As the situation deteriorates, the potential that this regime could consider using chemical weapons against its own people should be a concern for us all," Rice said (Agence France-Presse I/Yahoo!News, July 19).

Washington is urging Moscow to ensure Assad understands what the international ramifications will be should his government employ weapons of mass destruction, according to a CNN report.

"It's our sense even though the Russians are supporting the Assad regime that chemical weapons are a significant concern to them. They understand the stakes get much higher and their moral ground gets much lower" if chemical agents are employed, an unidentified senior Obama official told CNN.

Jordan, Syria's neighbor, is also greatly worried about the potential for chemical-weapon usage. "I think at the end of the day, all of us would suffer from that," Jordanian King Abdullah said. "I'm sure that (the Russians) would be very supportive of international reactions, because at the end of the day, we all pay the price." 

The United States has been monitoring Syria's chemical and suspected biological weapons facilities for some time in order to assess the quality of safeguards around the sites, the U.S.official said. The intent of the reported recent transport of some chemical weapons out of their depots remains to be seen. "The movement of the chemical weapons has generated additional concern inside the U.S. government," according to the official (Barbara Starr, CNN I, July 19).

Syria's official armed opposition is also seriously concerned about the potential for chemical weapons to be used, Agence France-Presse reported.

"We are seeking to secure protective gas masks for civilians and (defected) soldiers ... after the regime moved some out of storage," Free Syrian Army Col. Riad al-Assaad said in an interview with al-Bayan (Agence France-Presse II/Sri Lankan Sunday Times, July 18).

Globalsecurity.org projects that there are "hundreds of liters" of blister agent and VX and sarin nerve agents in Syria. The chemical agents are produced at facilities spread across the country so destroying them would necessitate a large-scale bombing effort, according to Wired magazine.

Ensuring that all of the chemical-weapon factories are destroyed would likely be particularly difficult as they are "notoriously small" and "difficult to conclusively identify," according to Globalsecurity.org.

Storage facilities are also strengthened against airstrikes, meaning weapons developed to destroy such structures would have to be used in any attack.

Additionally, the Syrian regime possesses advanced air defenses that could include the Russian-manufactured S-300 antimissile systems.

The regime is thought to keep its chemical arms in separated form with precursor materials kept in different containers, which makes them safer to move. The chemicals would be added together shortly prior to being poured into munitions.

A concerted U.S. government effort has not prevented such chemical precursors as yellow phosphorus and sodium sulfide -- needed for producing nerve agent -- from entering the country in considerable quantities in recent years (Ackerman/Shachtman, Wired, July 18).

The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday announced new financial penalties against 29 Assad regime personnel and five firms with connections to Syria's unconventional weapons program. The newly targeted officials include the head of Syria's Central Bank, the country's justice and finance ministers, and additional government Cabinet members, CNN reported, citing a press release.

The five sanctioned companies have dealings with the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which Treasury said manages production of missiles, their delivery components, and possible biological weapons.

Penalties include barring the people or organizations from accessing any funds or other goods that have been placed within U.S. jurisdiction.

"Today's actions reflect the unwavering commitment of the United States to pressure the Assad regime to end the carnage and relinquish power," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said in the release.  "As long as Assad stays in power ... we will continue working with our partners in the international community to ensure that the inevitable political transition occurs as rapidly as possible" (Jamie Crawford, CNN II, July 18).

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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