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U.S. quietly trying to suppress dangers of Syria’s chemical arsenal

The Obama administration has quietly arranged for thousands of chemical protective suits and related items to be sent to Jordan and Turkey and is pressing the military forces there to take principal responsibility for safeguarding Syrian chemical-weapons sites if the country’s lethal nerve agents suddenly become vulnerable to theft and misuse, Western and Middle Eastern officials say.

As part of their preparations for such an event, Western governments have started training the Jordanians and Turks to use the chemical gear and related detection equipment, so they’re capable of protecting the Syrian nerve-agent depots if needed – at least for a short time, U.S. and other Western officials say.

Washington has decided, moreover, that the best course of action in the aftermath of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s possible fall would be to get the nerve agents out of the country as quickly as possible, so it’s begun discussions not only with Jordan and Turkey, but also with Iraq and Russia to chart the potential withdrawal of the arsenal and its destruction elsewhere.

The Obama administration regards using allied forces from Syria’s periphery as the most likely “first responders” to a weapons-of-mass-destruction emergency as a way to avoid putting U.S. troops in the region if the special Syrian military forces now safeguarding the weapons leave their posts. A Syrian withdrawal otherwise might render the weapons vulnerable to capture and use by Hezbollah or other anti-U.S. or anti-Israeli militant groups, U.S. officials fear.

This article is based on conversations about international planning for the disposition of the Syrian stockpile with a half-dozen U.S. and foreign officials who declined to be named because of the sensitivities surrounding their work. They said the Western planning, while not yet complete, was further along than officials had publicly disclosed.

So far, the Turkish and Jordanian governments haven’t promised to take up the full role that Washington has sought to give them, U.S. and foreign officials said.

Jordanian Embassy spokeswoman Dana Zureikat Daoud said the training under way was “not mission-oriented,” meaning that Jordan doesn’t have a fixed responsibility. But she added that the government is concerned about the possibility of Syrian chemical armaments falling into extremist hands. “Our contingency plans . . . are discussed and elaborated with like-minded, concerned countries,” she said.

A spokesman at the Turkish Embassy declined to comment. James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010, said that although Ankara was eager for the United States to play a larger role in resolving the Syrian crisis, the Turks were “usually reluctant to be our foot soldiers.” He added: “When Americans come up with a plan to use country X’s soldiers, the plan is often self-fulfilling inside the Beltway,” but it sometimes runs into trouble when it’s broached in foreign capitals.

Worries about the fate of the chemicals – in a stockpile estimated at 350 to 400 metric tons (385 to 440 short tons) – have become so great that Washington and its allies have recently passed messages to some of the Syrian commanders who oversee their security, offering safety and a continued role under a new government if the commanders act responsibly, two knowledgeable officials said.

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.

“The people in Assad’s regime responsible for security at the chemical sites are among the very best soldiers,” a U.S. official said. “If one could keep those forces in place . . . that would be the best and probably the cheapest and most efficient outcome.”

But Assad, in a defiant address Jan. 6, said he had no intention of stepping aside or negotiating with the rebels who are engaged in a bitter struggle for national control that so far has claimed at least 60,000 lives.

“The options are not good in any scenario,” another senior official said, adding that Washington is as worried about the chemicals falling into the hands of rebel forces that may seize power, either locally or nationally, as it is about their misuse by terrorists or rogue Syrian military units and commanders. The United States has designated at least one of the major Syrian rebel groups, the Nusra Front, as a terrorist organization.

Also, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned policymakers that once Assad is gone, the country’s turmoil will increase, with rival groups perhaps seeking to brandish possession of the chemical weapons as symbols of their power.

Simply blowing up the chemicals with bombs or other weapons isn’t an option, while incinerating the chemicals in Syria would be logistically challenging and would pose high security risks. As a result, U.S. officials said they’d likely seek to transport the chemicals out of Syria as quickly as possible once a new government could be formed.

Under one scenario that’s under discussion between Washington and its allies, the chemicals would be moved to secure military bases in Jordan, Turkey or Iraq, where the United States and others would erect incinerators over six to 12 months that could destroy the chemicals in a year or so after that.

Another option, which officials said had tentatively been explored with senior Russian officials, is to truck the chemical agents to the Syrian port of Tartus, where the Russian navy keeps a small presence, so that they could be placed on a ship for transport to Russia, where multiple chemical-weapons destruction plants have been constructed with Western help.