With the days and weeks of the Syrian government appearing numbered, the Central Intelligence Agency is scrambling to get a handle on the locations of the country’s chemical and biological weapons, while assessing the composition, loyalties, and background of the rebel groups poised to take power in the event President Bashar al-Assad falls.
Obama administration officials tell The Daily Beast that the CIA has sent officers to the region to assess Syria’s weapons program. One major task for the CIA right now is to work with military defectors to find out as much information on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction, according to one U.S. official with access to Syrian intelligence. Another focus will be to sort through reams of intercepted phone calls and emails, satellite images, and other collected intelligence to find the exact locations of the Syrian weapons, this official said.
This task has become more urgent in recent days. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Syrian military was moving its chemical weapons out of storage. On July 17, Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq, told the BBC the regime would not hesitate to use chemical weapons against the rebel fighters. On Wednesday, a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the brother-in-law of President al-Assad in Damascus. The blow to the al-Assad cabinet raised the prospect that the Syrian regime may be on its last legs.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declined to provide details on what intelligence assets have been sent to Syria or to say whether the CIA has sent officers on the ground there. He said that the administration had recently deployed "the resources necessary to collect the information that we need to make a good decision on chemical and biological [weapons], opposition groups and leadership transition strategies." But, he added, "We don’t know nearly what we need to know to be completely effective if the regime were to implode tomorrow."
A CIA spokesman Thursday declined to comment.
Syria never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty that bans the use, stockpiling, or production of chemical weapons. Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, said he understands Syria’s stockpiles to be “massive.”
Brian Sayers, the director of government relations for the Syria Support Group, a new lobby in Washington that is pressing the Obama administration to give guns and training to Syria’s opposition said, “We believe that if the United States does not act urgently, there is a real risk of a political vacuum in Syria, including the possibility of a dispersion of chemical weapons to rogue groups such as Hezbollah.”
Paula DeSutter, who served as assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation between 2002 and 2009 and is now retired, said biological weapons could be a bigger a concern. A 2011 State Department report on the compliance of countries with arms control and nonproliferation agreements said it "remained unclear" whether Syria would use biological weapons as a military option or whether Syria had violated the Biological Weapons Convention.
DeSutter also said she would want the U.S. and international community to secure any remaining nuclear-related equipment from the al-Kibar reactor destroyed in 2007 by Israeli jets. Also unclear is what, if anything, Iraq transferred to Syria before the 2003 U.S. invasion. “That is the wild card,” said DeSutter.
Whether or not sensitive weapons technology was moved to Syria is a hotly disputed question in the intelligence community. James Clapper, now the Director of National Intelligence and formerly the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, said in 2003 that he believed materials had been moved out of Iraq in the months before the war and cited satellite imagery.
Obama administration officials say the White House has yet to decide on how it will respond if pro-al-Assad forces use chemical weapons against the Syrian population or a neighboring country. The administration has told senior regime officials that they will be held responsible if they fail to secure chemical weapons.
DeSutter said the U.S. should remain vague about the exact consequences. “You could say we will target the president of Syria if they are used and we will target any military organization that used them,” DeSutter said. “I would let them wonder. You might want to drop the word ‘Israel’ in the conversation, too, as a subtle point.”
Hydemann said, “There is absolutely no question there has been a great deal of attention in different agencies of the government to the location and security of the chemical weapons stockpiles.” He says the U.S. has done some contingency planning on securing Syria’s borders as well as airports and sea ports to make sure sensitive weapons or terrorist and regime officials do not escape in the event of the regime’s collapse.
Other issues pending at the White House include who in the current Syrian government could remain in place if the regime falls and what the U.S. will do to protect Syrian religious and ethnic minorities.
While several government agencies and departments are drawing up contingency plans and drafting policy memos, the White House has ultimate control of the policy process and has yet to make a decision. “We are still waiting for red lines,” one Obama administration official who works on Syria issues told The Daily Beast. “This is a decision for the president.”
Up until now, the Obama administration has preferred to influence events in Syria from behind the scenes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has helped create a group of states known as “Friends of Syria” that seek a managed transition through financial support for the opposition. The State Department is also providing nonlethal aid to Syria’s opposition such as communications equipment. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has pushed for U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions targeting President al-Assad and his top aides. A resolution authorizing military intervention in Syria was vetoed Thursday by China and Russia at the United Nations.