U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching Israel’s military for signs it will conduct strikes on Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, amid concerns the deadly nerve agents could fall under the control of Hezbollah or al Qaeda terrorists, U.S. officials said.
Syria’s arsenal remains vulnerable as the result of the internal conflict currently underway in Syria between government forces and opposition rebels, one official said.
“Everyone suspects Syria maintains an active chemical weapons program; and it would be dangerous not to plan accordingly,” the official said.
As for concerns the weapons will be captured or transferred, the official said: “Most countries that have CW stocks view it as a strategic, not tactical, tool—and strategic tools are usually pretty well protected and aren’t given away lightly.”
However, other U.S. officials said special operations forces are prepared to take action inside Syria in the event the regime falls and the country spirals further into chaos. The teams would seek to secure or destroy stockpiles of chemical arms to keep them from being taken over by terrorists. Hezbollah has been very active in Syria, and there are reports that al Qaeda terrorists have moved into Syria during the current crisis.
The exact size of the Syrian chemical arsenal is not known. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported several years ago that Syria has stockpiled 500 to 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents. The weapons are said to include long-lasting VX nerve agent and less-persistent Sarin nerve agent, as well as mustard blister agents.
Most but not all of the weapons stockpiles are known to U.S. intelligence agencies.
The New York Times reported Thursday that CIA operatives are working in southern Turkey to coordinate foreign assistance to Syrian rebel forces.
Recent statements by senior Israeli military officials prompted U.S. concerns over an Israeli strike on Syria.
Senior officials in Israel told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that if Syria’s army gave chemical weapons to Hezbollah or other terrorists an Israeli attack would be needed.
The newspaper reported May 31 that Israel failed to prevent Syria’s transfer of M-600 rockets to Hezbollah and the weapons can now threaten central Israel. One military source was quoted as saying that mistake would not be repeated.
Israeli Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, commander of forces deployed on the Syrian and Lebanese front, was quoted in press reports expressing concerns about Syria being used as “a warehouse for war materiel that feeds terrorist elements in the region.”
Golan also said there were reports that al Qaeda terrorists are working against the regime in Damascus and those terrorists eventually would target Israel, perhaps in the coming months.
IDF Deputy Chief Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh also said June 11 that Israeli forces must be on alert because Syria’s military has “the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the region, which can reach any spot in Israel.” He expressed worries that the weapons could “fall into the hands of the rebels or the terrorists.”
A State Department arms compliance report from 2010 stated that Syria is also believed to have an offensive biological weapons program in addition to the chemical arms.