The Obama administration has quietly arranged for thousands of chemical protective suits and related items to be sent to Jordan and Turkey and is pressing the military forces there to take principal responsibility for safeguarding Syrian chemical weapons sites if the country's lethal nerve agents suddenly become vulnerable to theft and misuse, Western and Middle Eastern officials say.
As part of their preparations for such an event, Western governments have started training the Jordanians and Turks to use the chemical gear and detection equipment so they have the capability to protect the Syrian nerve agent depots if needed -- at least for a short time, U.S. and Western officials say.
Washington has decided, moreover, that the best course of action in the aftermath of Assad's fall would be to get the nerve agents out of the country as quickly as possible, and so it has begun discussions not only with Jordan and Turkey, but also with Iraq and Russia in an effort to chart the potential withdrawal of the arsenal and its destruction elsewhere.
Using allied forces from Syria's periphery as the most likely "first-responders" to a weapons of mass destruction emergency is regarded in Washington as a way to avoid putting substantial U.S. troops into the region if the special Syrian military forces now safeguarding the weapons leave their posts. A Syrian withdrawal might otherwise render the weapons vulnerable to capture and use by Hezbollah or other anti-U.S. or anti-Israeli militant groups, U.S. officials fear.
This article is based on conversations about international planning for the disposition of the Syrian stockpile with a half-dozen U.S. and foreign officials who have direct knowledge of the matter but declined to be named due to the political and security sensitivities surrounding their work. They said the Western planning, while not yet complete, is further along than officials have publicly disclosed.
But so far, the Turkish and Jordanian governments have not promised to take up the full role that Washington has sought to give them, U.S. and foreign officials said.
Asked for comment, Jordanian embassy spokeswoman Dana Zureikat Daoud, said the training underway is "not mission-oriented," meaning that Jordan does not have a fixed responsibility. But she added that the government is indeed concerned about the possibility of Syrian chemical armaments falling into extremist hands. "Our contingency plans...are discussed and elaborated with like-minded, concerned countries," she said.
A spokesman at the Turkish embassy declined comment. But James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008-2010, said that although Ankara is eager for the United States to play a larger role in resolving the Syrian crisis, the Turks are "usually reluctant to be our foot-soldiers." He added: "When Americans come up with a plan to use country x's soldiers, the plan is often self-fulfilling inside the Beltway," but sometimes runs into trouble when it is broached in foreign capitals.
The prospect of lethal nerve agents at any Syrian sites suddenly becoming unprotected is one of many alarming developments that have been war-gamed at the Pentagon over the past year, as the conflict there deepens and President Bashar al-Assad's grip over his deadly arsenal comes into greater question, U.S. officials say.
Worries about the fate of the chemicals -- in a stockpile estimated at 350-400 metric tons -- have become so great that Washington and its allies have recently passed messages to some of the Syrian commanders that oversee their security, offering safety and a continued role under a new government if the commanders act responsibly, two knowledgeable officials said on the condition they not be named.
It is unclear what the results of that effort have been. But similar messages, urging restraint and good behavior in handling the chemicals, have also been passed in recent weeks to rebel forces inside the country, according to a Western official.
One of Washington's concerns has been that Assad might order the chemicals used against his own citizens, a fear that spiked late last year when chemicals at one base were seen being loaded into artillery shells and bombs. Western and Russian officials issued stiff warnings, and those concerns abated somewhat, although Foreign Policy magazine reported on Jan. 15 that some evidence exists that Syria used a generally nonlethal incapacitating gas against rebels in Homs last month.
The principal U.S. concern in a post-Assad period, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at a press briefing on Jan. 10, is "how do we secure the CBW [chemical and biological weapons] sites?...And that is a discussion that we are having, not only with the Israelis, but with other countries in the region, to try to look at...what steps need to be taken in order to make sure that these sites are secured."
"We're not working on options that involve [U.S.] boots on the ground," Panetta said.