(NBC News) Like a three-card monte player, the Syrian government has been shifting its chemical weapons around the country in the midst of the country’s increasingly violent and chaotic civil war, leaving foreign intelligence agencies to guess where the outlawed weapons of mass destruction might end up – and under whose control.
U.S. and Israeli officials fear that the weapons and chemical agents, which typically are kept separately until they are ready for use, could fall into the hands of terrorists or be used against rebel forces by the ruling Alawites in a last-ditch stand.
Almost as frightening, experts say, would be if rebel forces seized some of the weapons.
“No one but the Syrians knows the inventory, and if the rebels overrun one of these depots, there are worries about the physical control of the weapons,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank. “It may get down to individual Syrian soldiers making decisions.”
The fluid situation on the ground and questions about the locations and quantities of the chemical weapons have intelligence analysts grasping at straws, said Rob Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. intelligence analyst on Syria.
“No scenario is too fanciful,” he said. “We are in such uncharted territory. The regime is reeling and armed to the teeth.”
But intelligence reports and U.S. and Israeli experts interviewed by NBC News say two things are certain: The Syrian government has the most developed chemical weapons program in the Third World and it has used them on its own people at least once before.
On Monday, Syria responded to the report by saying it would unleash its chemical and biological weapons only in the event of a foreign attack — the first time it has acknowledged that it possesses such weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The statement “backfired,” said Danin, the Council on Foreign Relations fellow. “All it did was heighten international concerns about the (chemical weapons) stockpile,” he said. “If anything is going to trigger intervention, it’s this. It’s a potential causus belli” — “cause of war,” in Latin.
On Monday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little warned that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians, that would cross a “serious red line.”
Last year, in its most recent public report to Congress covering WMD developments, the CIA stated, “Syria has had a CW (chemical weapons) program for many years and has a stockpile of CW agents, which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets.”
U.S. intelligence reports indicate that Syria possesses the nerve agents sarin and tabun as well as traditional chemical weapons like mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide. The CIA report also stated that Syria “is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX,” which is more persistent than sarin and tabun and capable of rendering an area – or a city – uninhabitable “for some days.”
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