Syrian government’s chemical weapons stash raises alarm in Washington

Reports that the Syrian government is at risk of losing control of its chemical weapons stockpile have set off alarm bells in Washington.

Hawks in Congress who have been pushing the Obama administration to step up its involvement in the Syrian conflict said the revelations about the weapons show the urgent need for an intervention by the United States.

“The longer this lasts,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on CNN, “the more likelihood that these chemical weapons stockpiles that Bashar Assad has gets in the wrong hands, or maybe even used.”

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Others urged caution, arguing the United States should partner with other countries in the region to gain control of the weapons if the regime of President Bashar Assad falls.

“What it means is that there's a larger concern that maybe will concentrate people's focus a little more,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who rejected the idea that time is running out for action in Syria. “I think it increases the vigilance and accelerates the consideration of options.”

The latest frenzy was set off by a Wall Street Journal report that quoted U.S. officials as saying that Assad had moved “parts of its vast arsenal of chemical weapons out of storage facilities.” On Monday, Syria's former ambassador to Iraq, who defected last week, added to the tension by telling the BBC that Assad “will not hesitate to use chemical weapons” if he's cornered.

Kerry said such accusations should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Everybody says everybody's going to do something over there,” Kerry told The Hill following a speech at the annual conference of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “I think we have to make our own judgments. I think we have to look at it very carefully. The good thing is we have the capabilities to watch very closely what's going on.

“Nobody knows what the rationale may be for moving anything yet. There are a number of possibilities — some bad, some good,” he said, referring to the possibility that Assad intends to use them or simply wants to keep them from falling into the hands of potential terrorists. “You've got to figure them out.”

The White House put Syrian officials on notice that they would be held responsible for safeguarding the weapons.

“There are certain responsibilities that go along with the handling and storage and security of those chemical weapons," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "We believe that the individuals who are responsible for living up to those challenges should do so and will be held accountable for doing so.”

Syria is believed to have a stockpile of nerve agents such as mustard gas and even more dangerous nerve agents like Sarin in at least 50 chemical weapon production and storage facilities around the country, according to the Heritage Foundation. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the challenge of securing weapons in Syria is perhaps “100 times worse” than in Libya, where thousands of surface-to-air missiles are still unaccounted for following the rebellion there.

Experts have differing views about what to do about the stockpiles.

Some advocates of intervention say the United States should up its involvement in order to strengthen its hand with the rebels if Assad's regime falls.

“Without greater U.S. involvement now, our ability to shape the post-Assad country will be severely limited and the odds of sheer chaos or an extremist takeover go up,” the conservative writer Max Boot wrote for Commentary magazine on Thursday. 

“This has the makings of a very dangerous situation, especially because the Assad regime has chemical weapons which could conceivably fall into the wrong hands.”

But Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel on nonproliferation, said the United States has already done plenty.

“We've done a lot that's on the record, we've done a lot that's off the record,” Sherman told The Hill this week after a subcommittee hearing on securing Syria's chemical weapons. “We've done plenty for the Syrian rebels, and commitments about what happens to chemical weapons that fall into their hands … are very important and a very small thing to ask, given what we've done, which is more than you can determine by reading the newspaper.”

Others have suggested bombing the chemical weapons storage areas.

The Israelis are considering such a move, but have been warned against it by the Obama administration, according to a report in The New York Times. 

Richard Haass, the influential president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has also suggested a strike.

“The United States and other like-minded governments should not equate the United Nations with multilateralism, nor should they see the UN as having a monopoly on legitimacy,” Haass wrote. “To the contrary, they should form a coalition of the willing and able — composed of NATO countries, selected Arab governments, and others — committed to increasing sanctions against not just Syria but its supporters as well, building up the strength and political appeal of the Syrian opposition, pressing for war crimes indictments against Bashar Assad and his inner circle, planning for strikes against Syrian chemical munitions, and preparing for a post-Assad Syria.”

Testifying at the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing Thursday, Heritage Foundation research fellow Steven Bucci cautioned against air strikes as unwise. 

“They could produce collateral damage through the attacks themselves or by releasing toxic plumes that would threaten nearby civilians,” Bucci said. “Such a strike would have an unpredictable result. Simply, bombing would be a desperate and dangerous means to attempt to prevent proliferation.”

Instead, he advised coordination with regional powers and the rebels and said the administration should prepare for Special Forces intervention to nip “burgeoning threats” in the bud. That's the solution the administration and many in Congress seem to favor.

“My view is that Turkey and Jordan understand the complexities of the neighborhood and the factions inside Syria,” subcommittee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill after the hearing. “Both have well-trained armies and both have an immediate interest in preventing the spread of these chemical weapons.” 

“I think they're well-positioned to be the lion's share of the solution to this problem,” he said.