It’s unclear what the results of that effort have been. Similar messages, urging restraint and good behavior in handling the chemicals, also have been passed in recent weeks to rebel forces in the country, according to a Western official.
One of Washington’s concerns has been that Assad might order the chemicals used against his own citizens, a fear that spiked late last year when chemicals at one base were seen being loaded into artillery shells and bombs. Western and Russian officials issued stiff warnings, and those concerns abated somewhat, although Foreign Policy magazine reported Tuesday that some evidence exists that Syria used a generally nonlethal incapacitating gas against rebels in Homs last month.
The principal U.S. concern in a post-Assad period, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Jan. 10 at a news briefing, is how to secure the country’s chemical and biological weapons sites. “And that is a discussion that we are having, not only with the Israelis, but with other countries in the region,” he said.
“We’re not working on options that involve (U.S.) boots on the ground,” Panetta said.
At one extreme, a senior U.S. official said, the Pentagon might be prepared to dispatch its own special forces to one or more of the nerve agent sites if no other intervention could stop weapons there from falling into the wrong hands. But this would likely last only a few hours, during which the SEALS or other special forces would be tasked with swiftly neutralizing the agent and hostile forces.
The Obama administration’s preference, however, is to have other forces undertake such an intervention, so the United States and Britain have been conducting joint planning and training operations with Jordanian and Turkish commandos for more than a year, to prepare for their possible insertion into Syria in an emergency, according to U.S. and foreign officials who are familiar with the plans.
The protective suits, along with detection equipment and decontamination gear, began arriving in the late fall amid intensifying concern that the Syrian government might be considering using its chemical weapons stocks to halt rebel advances, the officials say. Syria’s arsenal includes mustard gas, which burns and blisters the skin and lungs, as well as sarin and VX, liquids that interfere with the nervous system and produce swift death by paralysis after minute, drop-size exposures, U.S. officials say.
Jordan and Turkey initially agreed to undertake Western training in dealing with chemical weapons because they might have to cope with panicked refugees and victims if Assad’s forces use such arms against the rebels; some risk also exists in that circumstance of clouds of dangerous gas wafting into their own territory from Syrian cities near their border. Even medical workers would be at grave risk in dealing with those who became contaminated, so Western powers are training them now, according to foreign officials.
“Their primary concern is a spillover of these things into their territory,” one U.S. official said.
Partly because of worries about the chemical stockpile, Washington and its allies still hope that Assad might be persuaded to leave in exchange for a guarantee of his personal security elsewhere. In such a negotiated transition, Western powers would seek to keep in place the Syrian military units that are responsible for safeguarding the chemical weapons sites, officials said.