WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has made contingency plans to send small teams of special operations troops into Syria if the White House decides it needs to secure chemical weapons depots now controlled by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, senior U.S. officials said.
President Obama warned this week that any effort by Assad to move or use his arsenal of chemical munitions in the country's conflict would cross a "red line," implying it could prompt swift U.S. intervention.
But Pentagon planners are more focused on protecting or destroying any Syrian stockpiles that are left unguarded and at risk falling into the hands of rebel fighters or militias aligned with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or other militant groups.
Securing the sites would probably involve stealthy raids by special operations teams trained to handle such weapons, and precision airstrikes to incinerate the chemicals without dispersing them in the air, the officials said. U.S. satellites and drone aircraft already maintain partial surveillance of the sites.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe Syria has over the years produced or acquired hundreds of tons of sarin nerve agent and mustard gas, a blister agent, and has sought to develop VX, another powerful nerve gas. The toxicity of some chemical agents degrades significantly over time, so it is unclear how lethal the stockpiles are.
Experts say the chemical agents are stored in bunkers and other sites around the country. Four production facilities are near the cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs, all tinderboxes in the 17-month uprising, as well as the coastal city of Latakia, an area considered a stronghold for Assad's Alawite religious sect.
An unclassified report by the director of national intelligence this year said Syria's chemical agents "can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets." But Syrian rockets, including Scud missiles procured from North Korea, are notoriously inaccurate, making them ineffective for delivering a heavy concentration of toxic chemicals to a specific target.
They can be very effective, however, at creating chaos.
"The actual killing may be less important than the panic they would induce," said Leonard Spector, who heads the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Although he did not make an explicit threat, Obama's comments at the White House on Monday were widely seen as a direct warning to Assad that the U.S. would take military action if necessary to stop the use of chemical weapons. But officials said later that no large-scale U.S. intervention is likely unless it is part of an international coalition.
"You shouldn't interpret what Obama said to mean that there would be automatic military action, but rather that we would respond as part of an international effort," said one senior official.
Officials said Obama could make a unilateral decision, however, to order special forces teams to stop weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands.
Pentagon officials and senior military officers said the Syrian stockpiles seem well guarded for now, and they stressed that the White House has not ordered detailed planning of operations aimed at securing the facilities.
"We have done contingency planning but we're not doing detailed planning — identifying numbers [of troops], units and platforms — until the White House tells us we need a specific plan for this," a senior officer said.
Although U.S. officials said they are closely monitoring the unconventional weapons sites, they also acknowledge the stockpiles are large enough that some materials, such as small artillery shells filled with chemical agents, could be relocated without their knowledge.
U.S. officials told reporters last month that they had evidence Syrian forces were moving some chemical arms, apparently to keep them away from areas of fighting.
Assad's government has said it will not use chemical munitions against the Syrian people, though it has implied they could be used if foreign troops sought to intervene in the war.
"Any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used — and I repeat will never be used — during the crisis in Syria, regardless of the developments," Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian government spokesman, told reporters last month. "These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."
Analysts say it's unclear how much of the chemical arsenal could be deployed, and they note that the agents, particularly VX and sarin, may have weakened if the regime isn't regularly refilling its stocks. U.S. intelligence officials have said that Syria, which is under international sanctions, relies heavily on foreign sources for chemicals and other key parts of its weapons program.
The VX stockpiles maintained by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's government had a shelf life of about six months, and the sarin less than two years, the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, a network of European think tanks, said in a report last month.
"To keep those sorts of quantities replenished, you have to have a very robust program," said Charles P. Blair, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based group.
In response to a reporter's question Monday, Obama mentioned Syria's biological weapons program. But that appears a minor concern at this point.
In 2008, Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified before Congress that Syria had "a program to develop select biological agents as weapons" and that the program was "in the research and development stage."
U.S. officials no longer appear to believe that Syria is actively pursuing a biological weapons program. The unclassified U.S. intelligence report this year said only that Syria had the infrastructure to support the development of biological weapons.