WASHINGTONSyria has begun moving parts of its vast arsenal of chemical weapons out of storage facilities, U.S. officials said, in a development that has alarmed many in Washington.
The country's undeclared stockpiles of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide have long worried U.S. officials and their allies in the region, who have watched anxiously amid the conflict in Syria for any change in the status or location of the weapons.
American officials are divided on the meaning of the latest moves by members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Some U.S. officials fear Damascus intends to use the weapons against the rebels or civilians, potentially as part of a targeted ethnic cleansing campaign. But other officials said Mr. Assad may be trying to safeguard the material from his opponents or to complicate Western powers' efforts to track the weapons.
Some said that Mr. Assad may not intend to use the weapons, but instead may be moving them as a feint, hoping the threat of a chemical attack could drive Sunnis thought to be sympathetic to the rebels from their homes.
Whatever the motivation, the evidence that the chemical weapons are coming into play could escalate the conflict in Syria, some fear. "This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch," one U.S. official said. "This is incredibly dangerous to our national security."
The Obama administration has begun to hold classified briefings about the new intelligence. U.S. officials are particularly worried about Syria's stocks of sarin gas, the deadly and versatile nerve agent. The officials wouldn't say where weapons have been moved.
The new intelligence comes as the U.S. and its allies step up pressure on Russia to join an international drive to dislodge Mr. Assad from power. But the new information could cut both ways, officials said: It could bolster calls for international action to remove Mr. Assad, but also underline the risks of intervening against a military armed with weapons of mass destruction.
"This shows how complex this is," a second official briefed on the matter said.
The Syrian government denied the chemical stockpiles have been moved.
"This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue," said Syria's foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi. "If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can't they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?"
The White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.
Damascus is believed to possess one of the largest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East. Syria never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the arms-control agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons.
Despite the new intelligence, U.S. officials said they believe that the weapons remain under Syrian government control.
The State Department reiterated U.S. warnings: "We have repeatedly made it clear that the Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons, and that the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fail to meet that obligation," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Syrian opposition leaders said that rebels have confiscated equipment from Syrian forces apparently meant to protect them during a chemical weapons attack.
Syria has long had the capability of placing its chemical agents in artillery shells and Scud missiles, U.S. officials have said. But chemical and biological weapons are difficult to deploy effectively. Sarin, for example, can be used either as a gas or to poison water supplies because it is heavier than air, but is hard to control when used as a weapon against a crowd of people.
The weapons are a danger not only to opponents, but also to the government's own forces. In 2007, an accident at a chemical-weapons facility involving mustard gas killed several Syrians.
U.S. officials have held discussions with the Jordanian military, working on plans to have Jordan's special operations forces secure the chemical and biological sites in the event that Assad's government falls.
Because of the faulty intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the Iraq war, U.S. officials are extremely cautious about using reports of Mr. Assad's chemical stockpiles to support military intervention.
Some U.S. officials briefed on the matter said the information isn't conclusive on what Mr. Assad's forces intend to do with the weapons. These officials said the moves may be aimed at safeguarding the materials from enemies, rather than a sign Mr. Assad is preparing to use them.
Officials point out that Mr. Assad remains in power today largely because of international disagreement over how to handle the crisis. If he used a chemical weapon, they said, Western allies would likely rally around plans to more aggressively intervene and topple him from power.
But some American officials, who hold the view that the U.S. needs to do more to protect the Syrian population, fear that the chemical weapons have been moved in so they can be available for government-allied forces to use, should the rebels make further gains or the Syrian state begin to fall apart.
"The regime has a plan for ethnic cleansing, and we must come to terms with this," the first U.S. official said. "There is no diplomatic solution."
Some analysts and U.S. officials believe that if the Assad government is forced to abandon power, it would retreat to the Mediterranean coast, where the country's Allawite population is concentrated. The Syrian regime since 2011 has attacked Sunni enclaves in the coastal areas otherwise dominated by the pro-government Allawite minority.
As the rebels continue to gain in key areas and the Assad regime is increasingly threatened, it could resort to chemical weapons, said Joseph Holliday, a former Army intelligence officer and an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
"We can't discount him using this, we just can't," Mr. Holliday said. "If we believe the Assad regime and their closest allies view this as an existential struggle, we have to assume they could use chemical weapons against their population at some point in the conflict."
Opposition leaders maintain there are increasing indications that the Damascus regime is trying to cleanse strategic areas, such as Hama and Homs, of Sunnis in order to set up an ethnic state that could be defended by the Assads' Allawite ethnic minority.
A delegation from the umbrella Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, visited Moscow this week and pressed the Russian government to use its leverage with the Assads to quell the violence, according to members of the group.
Re: U.S. Concerned as Syria Moves Chemical Stockpile
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July 14 2012, 1:07 AM
What's troubling about this move is, it may mean Assad is probably starting
to lose power.
It's funny because you can also ask, why does the US and its "allies" that are arming the rebels
hate Israel..? Collapsing the regime puts Israel in more danger and it makes it more likely that Israel
will have to intervene militarily to keep the jihadis from getting those chem weapons.
If Israel intervenes militarily, you bet your azz this will start a bigger war!
It doesn't make sense!
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