In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites — probably the deadly nerve gas sarin — and filling dozens of 225kg bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours, US President Barack Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, US officials were told that if the increasingly desperate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours and, in all likelihood, too fast for the US to act.
What followed next was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the US, the Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action, officials said.
The combination of a public warning by Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to al-Assad and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later, US Secretary of Defense Leo Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
Yet concern remains that al-Assad could now use the weapons produced that week at any moment. US and European officials say that while crisis was averted in that week from late November to early last month, they are by no means resting easy.
“I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war,” one senior US defense official said last week. “What al-Assad understood and whether that understanding changes if he gets cornered in the next few months, that’s anyone’s guess.”
While chemical weapons are technically considered a weapon of mass destruction (WMD), they are hard to use and hard to deliver. Whether an attack is effective can depend on the winds and the terrain. Sometimes attacks are hard to detect, even after the fact. Some officials say Syrian forces could employ them in a neighborhood and it would take time for the outside world to know.
However, the scare has renewed debate about whether the West should help the Syrian opposition destroy al-Assad’s air force, which he would need to deliver the bombs. The chemical munitions are still in storage areas that are near or on Syrian air bases, ready for deployment on short notice, officials said.
The Obama administration and other governments have said little in public about the chemical weapons movements, in part because of concern about compromising sources of intelligence about the activities of al-Assad’s forces. This account is based on interviews with more than half a dozen military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the intelligence matters involved.
The head of the German foreign intelligence service BND warned in a confidential assessment last month that the weapons could now be deployed four to six hours after orders were issued and that al-Assad had a special adviser at his side who oversaw control of the weapons, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported. However, some US and other allied officials said in interviews that the sarin-laden bombs could be loaded on planes and airborne in less than two hours.