U.S., allies accelerating plans to secure chemical arsenal as Syrian crisis worsens (WASHINGTON POST) By Joby Warrick 05/19/12)
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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
“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.”
Western intelligence agencies made similar plans to safeguard
chemical munitions in Libya last year during the uprising there,
particularly during the chaotic final weeks as Libyan troops deserted
their bases ahead of the rebels’ final advance on Tripoli.
The Libyan arsenal, consisting mainly of bulk containers of degraded
mustard agent, was deemed less dangerous than Syria’s battlefield-
ready stock of more powerful nerve agents. Libya’s chemical weapons
depots remained intact during the uprising, though thousands of other
weapons of all kinds — from rocket-propelled grenades to shoulder-
fired antiaircraft missiles — went missing.
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.
While U.S. intelligence officials have conducted their own planning
exercises for Syria, the increased coordination began early this year
and intensified in recent months. An early advocate, Western
diplomats say, was Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose country has
witnessed cross-border shootings in addition to masses of Syrian
refugees since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
began 14 months ago.
The process evolved into a series of bilateral discussions that grew
to include Britain, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates, according to two Middle Eastern security officials who have
“We drew on the lessons from Libya,” the second Middle Eastern
official said. “Some of the countries involved have overlapping air
defenses, so on a practical level there has to be coordination.”
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.
It is against this backdrop that military forces from 19 countries
gathered in Jordan last week for a military exercise dubbed Eager
Lion 2012. The exercise, focused primarily on special operations and
counterinsurgency training, was expected to draw as many as 12,000
troops to the Jordanian desert, making it one of the largest
exercises of its kind in the region, Pentagon officials said.
U.S. and Jordanian officials have declined to link the training
exercise to the crisis in Syria, a country with which Jordan
maintains diplomatic relations. But Pentagon officials involved in
the event stressed the importance of “strategic theater cooperation”
among special operations troops.
The training “does not target anyone — none of the neighboring or
world countries,” Jordanian Armed Forces training chief Major Gen.
Awni El-Edwan told reporters. (© 2010 The Washington Post Company
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