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Monday, December 03, 2012

US warning Syria on chemical weapons

From the NYT on Saturday:
Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.

“It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before,” a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”

The official said, however, that the Syrians had not carried out the most blatant steps toward using the chemical weapons, such as preparing them to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes.
Now the US is starting to warn the regime, although not very explicitly:
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a "strong warning" Monday to the regime of Bashar al-Assad over the potential use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

"This is a red line for the United States," Clinton said after meeting Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. "Once again, we issue a very strong warning to the Assad regime that their behavior is reprehensible. Their actions against their own people have been tragic."

"I'm not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people, but suffice it to say that we're certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur,” she said.

"There is no doubt that there is a line between the horrors that they [the Assad regime] have already inflicted on the Syrian people and moving to what would be an internationally condemned step of utilizing chemical weapons," Clinton said, without providing further details on the nature of the planned action.

The warning came as The New York Times reported Monday that the Americans and Europeans had sent warnings via intermediaries to the Syrian regime after detecting movement of chemical weapons by the Syrian military in recent days.

"The activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation," one US official told the daily, which added that the activity over the weekend has set off a flurry of emergency communications among the Western allies.

If the West starts to consider military action, then Syria might decide to start something on the border with Israel itself to muddy the waters.

And what Western nation would want to be perceived as supporting Israel militarily, even as they warn Israel not to retaliate?

But there's more. Wired's Danger Room reports:
Engineers working for the Assad regime in Syria have begun combining the two chemical precursors needed to weaponize sarin gas, an American official with knowledge of the situation tells Danger Room. International observers are now more worried than they've even been that the Damascus government could use its nerve agent stockpile to slaughter its own people.

The U.S. doesn’t know why the Syrian military made the move, which began in the middle of last week and is taking place in central Syria.

All that’s certain is that the arms have now been prepped to be used, should Assad order it.

“Physically, they’ve gotten to the point where the can load it up on a plane and drop it,” the official adds.

Sarin gas has two main chemical components — isopropanol, popularly known as rubbing alcohol, and methylphosphonyl difluoride. The Assad government has more than 500 metric tons of these precursors, which it ordinarily stores separately, in so-called “binary” form, in order to prevent an accidental release of nerve gas.

Last week, that changed. The Syrian military began combining some of the binaries. “They didn’t do it on the whole arsenal, just a modest quantity,” the official says. “We’re not sure what’s the intent.”

Jeffrey Goldberg adds another dimension from the Israeli side:
The U.S. is not the only country worried about the possible use of chemical weapons. Intelligence officials in two countries told me recently that the Israeli government has twice come to the Jordanian government with a plan to take out many of Syria's chemical weapons sites. According to these two officials, Israel has been seeking Jordan's "permission" to bomb these sites, but the Jordanians have so far declined to grant such permission.

Of course, Israel can attack these sites without Jordanian approval (in 2007, the Israeli Air Force destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor), but one official told me that the Israelis are concerned about the possible repercussions of such an attack on Jordan. "A number of sites are not far from the border," he said, further explaining: "The Jordanians have to be very careful about provoking the regime and they assume the Syrians would suspect Jordanian complicity in an Israeli attack." Intelligence sources told me that Israeli drones are patrolling the skies over the Jordan-Syria border, and that both American and Israeli drones are keeping watch over suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites.

He went on to provide context of the Israeli request: "You know the Israelis -- sometimes they want to bomb right away. But they were told that from the Jordanian perspective, the time was not right." The Israeli requests were made in the last two months, communicated by Mossad intermediaries dispatched by Prime Minister Netanyahu's office, according to these sources. (I asked the Israeli embassy in Washington for comment on this, but received no answer.)
There are a lot of moving pieces around Syria now.

(h/t Yoel, Josh Block)