U.S., allies accelerating plans to secure Syrian chemical arsenal

The Obama administration is accelerating its planning with Middle Eastern allies for a series of potentially fast-moving crises in Syria in the coming months, including the possible loss of government control over some of the country’s scattered stocks of chemical weapons,U.S. and Middle Eastern security officials say.

The planning, involving intelligence and military officials from at least seven countries, includes detailed arrangements for securing chemical arms with special operations troops in the event that parts of Syria are seized by militants, the officials said. Western and regional intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Islamic extremists could attempt to seize control of whole towns and districts if the country slides into full-scale civil war.

The stepped-up preparations have coincided with increased military training in the region, including an unusually large multinational military exercise underway this month in Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor. U.S. and Jordanian officials separately have been discussing possible permanent bases in the country for small units of Marines or special operations troops who could be deployed rapidly in a crisis anywhere in the region, from the Syria border to Iraq, according to current and former government officials familiar with the talks.

“There’s a big worry that things could fall apart quickly,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who has been briefed about the contingency plans and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatically sensitive preparations. “A big problem can turn up on your doorstep overnight.”

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While Syria’s arsenal of deadly nerve agents tops the list of worries, the planning group — which has included elements of the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command on the U.S. side — also has sought to map out a response to other emergencies, from pilot-rescue operations to massive refugee flights to border violence as tribes along the Syrian frontier are drawn into skirmishes with government forces or rival groups, the officials said.

“There are contingencies for everything, up to and including taking back a province that has been seized by al-Qaeda,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official who has participated in the discussions.

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The contingency planning for securing Syrian chemical weapons relies on early warning from U.S. spy agencies who have been closely monitoring Assad’s stockpiles for more than a year. Syria possesses one of the world’s largest arsenals of chemical munitions, including tons of nerve gases such as VX and sarin, as well as artillery shells and missile warheads for delivering them.

The weapons are kept in bunkers under heavy guard in at least five sites around the country, weapons experts say. While the stockpiles appear secure at the moment, they could be plundered or simply abandoned if Syria troops are beaten back by increasingly well-armed rebels or by al-Qaeda-allied militants who have been streaming into the country from Iraq in recent weeks, intelligence officials say.

Read More: Washington Post

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