Source: NYTimesHints of Syrian Chemical Push Set Off Global Effort to Stop It
By ERIC SCHMITT and DAVID E. SANGER
Published: January 7, 2013
WASHINGTON — In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes. Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria’s increasingly desperate president, Bashar al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action. The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being. “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war,” one senior defense official said last week. “What Assad understood, and whether that understanding changes if he gets cornered in the next few months, that’s anyone’s guess.” But the scare a month ago has renewed debate about whether the West should help the Syrian opposition destroy Mr. Assad’s air force, which he would need to deliver those 500-pound bombs. The chemical munitions are still in storage areas that are near or on Syrian air bases, ready for deployment on short notice, officials said.
How the United States and Israel, along with Arab states, would respond remains a mystery. The United States military has quietly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there, among other things, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was reported to have traveled to Jordan in recent weeks, and the Israeli news media have said the topic of discussion was how to deal with Syrian weapons if it appeared that they could be transferred to Lebanon, where Hezbollah could lob them over the border to Israel. But the plans, to the extent they exist, remain secret. Allied officials say whatever safeguards the Syrian government have taken, there remains great concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists fighting the government or the militant group Hezbollah, which has established small training camps near some of the storage sites.
One thing is a certainty. Israel will never allow any transfer of Syrian C/B/N materials to Lebanon.
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