WASHINGTON -- There would be almost nothing the U.S. armed forces could do to stop Syria's government from using its chemical weapons against opposition forces fighting to bring down the Assad regime, the United States’ top military officer said on Thursday.
“The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon press conference. “You would have to have such clarity of intelligence … persistent surveillance, you’d have to actually see it before it happened, and that’s unlikely, to be sure."
The Syrian military in late November was detected by surveillance satellites combining precursor ingredients for what was believed to be sarin nerve agent and pouring the mixture into aerial munitions. The intelligence revelation prompted Washington and other capitals to publicly and privately threaten Damascus with strong retaliatory measures should it carry out a chemical attack.
The coordinated lobbying campaign is understood to have caused the Assad regime to pause its preparations for a chemical strike. However, the sarin-filled munitions are reportedly still ready to be loaded onto nearby Syrian bombers should the order be given. It could only require hours to begin such an attack.
“I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable” to the international community, Dempsey said. “To that extent, it provides a deterrent value. But preventing it, if they decide to use it, I think we would be reacting.”
Syria has never declared a chemical weapons capability but is widely believed to hold hundreds of tons of mustard blister agent, sarin, and possibly VX nerve gas that could be disseminated by air-dropped bombs, ballistic missiles and artillery shells. The nation's chemical program is also believed to be spread out over a number of storage facilities, research laboratories and manufacturing sites.
As sarin only has a shelf-life of about two months after its precursor agents are combined, the assumed sarin bombs detected being readied toward the end of November should be expiring in a matter of weeks. “That's what the scientists tell us,” the JSOC chairman said, adding, “I'd still be reluctant to handle it myself.”
A chief worry is how to secure Syria’s expansive chemical weapons program once the regime falls, as is increasingly being predicted, said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Washington is holding talks with Israel and other regional countries on what “steps need to be taken in order to make sure that these sites are secured and that they don't wind up in the wrong hands.”
The international community wants to ensure that regional nonstate actors such as Hezbollah are unable to seize Syrian chemical warfare materials for use in terrorist attacks.
The defense chief said deploying U.S. troops in Syria is not a serious option though it would ultimately depend on what happens in the transition phase following the end of the Assad regime. "Is there a permissive atmosphere? Or is it a hostile atmosphere?"
"You always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation," which would be the desired conditions for any deployment of U.S. forces, Panetta said alongside Dempsey. "But in a hostile situation, we're not planning for that."
Specially trained Czech military personnel with experience handling and disarming weapons of mass destruction could be assigned to train regional partners in how to secure Syrian chemical arms, Dempsey indicated, though he said no such request has yet been made by Washington. Czech WMD units were reported last year to be in Jordan advising the government there on how to handle a Syrian chemical weapons crisis. U.S. military advisers were sent last fall to the country to provide similar advice to Amman.