Syria’s military is ready to use chemical weapons against its own people and has prepared the necessary components, US TV stations reported on Wednesday evening, citing US officials and intelligence sources.
Regime forces are now awaiting orders from President Bashar Assad to use the weaponry, NBC reported, as tensions in the region ramp up around reports of activity surrounding the country’s massive chemical weapons stockpiles.
Washington is “huddling” with its allies, including Israel, over how to grapple with the danger, according to CNN. US intelligence, Israeli intelligence and other agencies were “working this problem round the clock,” it said, adding that concern in the region “is growing by the hour.”
A chemical attack on a city like Homs in western Syria, with a population of about a million, could wipe out a third of the city in a few hours, ex-CIA agent Robert Baer told the station. In 1988, Iraq used chemical weapons on Kurds in the northern city of Halabja, killing up to 5,000 people in a matter of hours.
Baer also noted that with Al-Qaeda reportedly “on the ground” in Syria, there was a “remote” danger of chemical weapons being fired into Israel. There were “all sorts of disastrous scenarios,” he said. “They’re remote, but it’s a possibility.”
CNN said the Pentagon was fully focused on the Syrian chemical weapons threat, and was coordinating with Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Officials were working on “targeting options” to present to the White House, to try to stop the Syrians using the weaponry.
Officials told news network NBC that regime forces had already locked and loaded precursory chemicals for deadly nerve agent sarin into bombs which could be dropped from planes, complicating the situation.
According to CNN, striking the warheads after the chemical has been mixed could release the deadly gases, potentially causing catastrophe.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels Wednesday, said Assad’s regime was on the brink of collapse, and “an increasingly desperate Assad regime” might resort to chemical warfare.
“Bombshells filled with chemicals can be carried by Syrian Air Force fighter-bombers,” NBC reported, and “unguided short-range Frog-7 artillery rockets may be capable of carrying chemical payloads.” So too could various Syrian missile systems, it added.
Syria currently holds one of the world’s largest stores of chemical weapons, leading to international concern over both Damascus’s use of the weapons and the regime’s ability to keep them out of the hands of terror groups
On Tuesday, CNN reported that US intelligence believes pro-Assad forces at a chemical weapons plant began “mixing two chemicals needed to make deadly sarin gas” over the weekend. It also said then that Assad had not yet ordered an attack, but “is getting ready possibly for a limited strike…. The regime might use artillery shells filled with sarin” against rebel forces, it quoted US intelligence sources saying.
Pentagon sources told the network they were concerned both over the use of the chemical agents on Syrians and of the possibility of the weaponry spilling into neighboring countries, whichw as described as a “full-fledged crisis.”
Fighting has indeed spilled over into neighboring states several times in the course of the 20-month civil war, in which some 40,000 people are said to have been killed. This has included several incidents in which mortar shells fell on the Golan Heights, inside Israel, and IDF vehicles were hit by bullet fire, including Thursday morning. Israel has fired back at the sources of fire, reportedly injuring and possibly even killing Syrian troops on two occasions.
The CNN report said that the US analysis is that Assad is not ready to flee Syria at this point, but that if he did, his possible bolt holes could be Venezuela, Russia or Iran. The Russians, however, are growing increasingly wary of Assad, in part because of signs that he might be readying to use chemical weapons against his own people. And he would likely be safest from retribution in Iran.
The US TV reports Wednesday came several hours after the Times of London reported that the US, along with several key allies, is prepared to launch a military intervention in Syria should the Assad government resort to using its chemical weapons against the rebels.
A military source told the Times that US forces could be ready “rapidly, within days,” and implied that the necessary forces were already in the region.
Israel is particularly concerned that Syrian chemical and biological weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used against Israel.
“Together with the international community, we are closely monitoring developments in Syria regarding its stores of chemical weapons… Such weapons must not be used and must not reach terrorist elements,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday at a forum in Jerusalem.