December 3, 2012

US official: Syria moving chemical weapons components

Secretary of State Clinton reiterats President Obama's declaration that Syrian action on chemical weapons was a "red line" for the United States that would prompt action.

Bradley Klapper and Pauline Jelinek / The Associated Press

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Syria is believed to have several hundred ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads.

Its arsenal is a particular threat to the American allies, Turkey and Israel, and Obama singled out the threat posed by the unconventional weapons earlier this year as a potential cause for deeper U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. Up to now, the United States has opposed military intervention or providing arms support to Syria's rebels for fear of further militarizing a conflict that activists say has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011.

Clinton said that while the actions of President Bashar Assad's government have been deplorable, chemical weapons would bring them to a new level.

"We once again issue a very strong warning to the Assad regime that their behavior is reprehensible, their actions against their own people have been tragic," she said. "But there is no doubt that there's a line between even the horrors that they've already inflicted on the Syrian people and moving to what would be an internationally condemned step of utilizing their chemical weapons."

Activity has been detected before at Syrian weapons sites, believed to number several dozen.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in late September the intelligence suggested the Syrian government had moved some of its chemical weapons in order to protect them. He said the U.S. believed that the main sites remained secure.

Asked Monday if they were still considered secure, Pentagon press secretary George Little declined to comment about any intelligence related to the weapons.

Senior lawmakers were notified last week that U.S. intelligence agencies had detected activity related to Syria's chemical and biological weapons, said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meetings. All congressional committees with an interest in Syria, from the intelligence to the armed services committees, are now being kept informed.

"I can't comment on these reports but I have been very concerned for some time now about Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons and its stocks of advanced conventional weapons like shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles," said House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich. "We are not doing enough to prepare for the collapse of the Assad regime, and the dangerous vacuum it will create. Use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be an extremely serious escalation that would demand decisive action from the rest of the world," he added.

Syria is believed to have one of the world's largest chemical weapons programs, and the Assad regime has said it might use the weapons against external threats, though not against Syrians. The U.S. and Jordan share the same concern about Syria's chemical and biological weapons — that they could fall into the wrong hands should the regime in Syria collapse and lose control of them.

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