Obama says using weapons crosses ‘red line’
WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has made contingency plans to send small teams of special operations troops into Syria if the White House decides it needs to secure chemical weapons depots now controlled by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, senior U.S. officials said.
President Barack Obama warned this week that any effort by Assad to move or use his arsenal of chemical munitions in the country’s conflict would cross a “red line,” implying it could prompt swift U.S. intervention.
But Pentagon planners are more focused on protecting or destroying any Syrian stockpiles that are left unguarded and at risk of falling into the hands of rebel fighters or militias aligned with al-Qaida, Hezbollah or other militant groups.
Securing the sites would probably involve stealthy raids by special operations teams trained to handle such weapons, and precision airstrikes to incinerate the chemicals without dispersing them in the air, the officials said. U.S. satellites and drone aircraft already maintain partial surveillance of the sites.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe Syria has, over the years, produced or acquired hundreds of tons of sarin nerve agent and mustard gas, a blister agent, and has sought to develop VX, another powerful nerve gas. The toxicity of some chemical agents degrades significantly over time, so it is unclear how lethal the stockpiles are.
Experts say the chemical agents are stored in bunkers and other sites around the country. Four production facilities are near the cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs, all tinderboxes in the 17-month uprising, as well as the coastal city of Latakia.
Although he did not make an explicit threat, Obama’s comments at the White House on Monday were widely seen as a direct warning to Assad that the U.S. would take military action if necessary to stop the use of chemical weapons. But officials said later that no large-scale U.S. intervention is likely unless it is part of an international coalition.
“You shouldn’t interpret what Obama said to mean that there would be automatic military action, but rather that we would respond as part of an international effort,” said one senior official.
Officials said Obama could make a unilateral decision, however, to order special forces teams to stop weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands.
Pentagon officials and senior military officers said the Syrian stockpiles seem well guarded for now, and they stressed that the White House has not ordered detailed planning of operations aimed at securing the facilities.