US military planners are studying contingency plans for a potential mission in Syria without precedent — securing the regime’s chemical weapons in the midst of a raging civil war, officials and experts said.
No military action is imminent at the moment, according to officials, but the Pentagon is grappling with an array of hellish scenarios that could emerge as the conflict escalates, with the Damascus regime possibly losing control of its chemical arsenal.
While US military planning in the past has focused on searching out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of a hostile government, the situation in Syria raises the possibility of stockpiles falling into the hands of militant groups or desperate members of a threatened regime.
“This is totally new territory historically. Never in history has a WMD-armed country fallen into civil war,” Charles Blair of the Federation of American Scientists said.
“This has never happened,” he said.
The US experience in Iraq, in which US-led forces failed to secure some sensitive conventional weapons sites after the 2003 invasion, serves as a cautionary tale given the complexities that confront planners over Syria, where reliable intelligence is even harder to come by, Blair said.
“The only thing we can be sure [of] is there are going to be a lot of unpleasant surprises,” Blair said.
President Barack Obama has suggested the use of chemical or biological weapons could trigger US military intervention.
However, for the moment, the administration says President Bashar al-Assad’s regime retains control of the chemical arsenal and that there are no indications it is about to use the lethal weapons.
Given the dangerous combination of chemical weapons and civil upheaval, obtaining accurate intelligence could be the most difficult aspect of any mission to disable the arsenal.
“The degree to which we can use the network of defectors to determine what these stockpiles entail” could offer the best hope of safeguarding the arsenal, said Melissa Dalton, a former Pentagon official and a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The regime could choose to transfer the chemical stockpiles to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, though the Shiite militants would likely stop short of a move that could invite a massive Israeli assault, she said.
“Because Syria is right in Israel’s backyard, they [the Israelis] may want to go in unilaterally to prevent the stockpiles from falling into the hands of others,” she said.