With talk ramping up of possible Western intervention in Syria in the wake of alleged chemical weapons use in the war-torn country, senior American military and intelligence officials admitted that they do not know where Syria’s chemical weapons are.
Speaking to the Daily Beast, officials said they believed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad had moved the country’s large stockpile of chemical weapons around the country.
“We’ve lost track of lots of this stuff,” an American official admitted in the article published Thursday. “We just don’t know where a lot of it is.”
This revelation comes as President Barack Obama weighs his response to allegations of chemical weapons use by Assad’s regime. Without adequate intelligence on the location of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, the success of potential military action by the United States to secure the weapons would be difficult to guarantee.
In the past, the Syrian military kept its sarin, VX, and mustard gas in permanent storage sites. Syria is believed to have storage sites in Palmyra and Latakia, and production facilities near the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs. American intelligence officials now suspect that much of Assad’s chemical stockpile has been transferred to other locations.
On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was clear to Ankara that Assad had used chemical weapons against rebel forces.
Chemical weapons movement around Syria has been reported since last summer.
In July 2012, the Free Syrian Army claimed that “Assad has transferred some of these weapons and equipment for mixing chemical components to airports on the border… According to our information, the regime began moving its stocks of weapons of mass destruction several months ago … with the goal of putting pressure on the region and the international community.”
Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta indicated in September 2012 that, although he believed some weapons had been moved, precise intelligence was lacking. “There has been intelligence that there have been some moves that have taken place,” Panetta said. “Where exactly that has taken place, we don’t know.”
Chemical weapons movement has picked up since December, according to sources in the American government.
The transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist organizations was an early red line for President Obama. “We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said last August. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is… we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.”
“That would change my calculus,” he underscored.
Other senior American defense officials have recently expressed doubt publicly about their ability to secure the stockpiles by military force.
During an April 11 House hearing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “What percentage do you give us at trying to secure [those] weapons systems? Not only the chemical weapons, but the stockpile of sophisticated conventional weapons?”
“I’m not sure how to make a call like that,” Clapper replied. “It would be very, very situational dependent to render an assessment on how well we could secure any or all of the facilities in Syria.”
A week later, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he was not fully confident that such an operation would succeed, “because they have been moving it, and the number of sites is quite numerous.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters last week that, according to American intelligence agencies, they can say “with some degree of varying confidence” that Syria had used chemical weapons on a “small scale.” A White House letter to Congress indicated that intelligence agencies had samples suggesting the use of sarin.
Senior Israeli military intelligence analyst Gen. Itai Brun revealed last week that the IDF believed Syria had used chemical weapons. “To the best of our professional understanding, the regime has used lethal chemical weapons,” he said, noting that the IDF believed the toxic element was Sarin — a nerve agent far more deadly than cyanide — and that it had been used on more than one occasion, including in a specific attack on March 19.
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