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Seizing Syria's chemical arms would be tall order

  • Article by: DAVID E. SANGER
  • a nd ERIC SCHMITT New York Times
  • November 15, 2012 - 8:30 PM

 

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon has told the Obama administration that any military effort to seize Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops, amid increasing concern that the militant group Hezbollah has set up small training camps close to some of the chemical weapons depots, according to senior U.S. officials.

The estimated size of the potential effort, provided to the White House by the military's Central Command and Joint Staff, stunned top administration officials. It also called into question whether the United States would have the resources to act quickly if the movement of chemical weapons forced President Obama, as he said in August, to "change my calculus" about inserting U.S. forces into the most brutal civil conflict to emerge from the Arab uprisings.

So far Obama has avoided direct intervention, and the Pentagon assessment was seen as likely to reinforce that reluctance.

The Pentagon has not yet been directed to draft detailed plans of how it could carry out such a mission, according to military officials. There are also contingency plans, officials say, for securing a more limited number of the Syrian chemical weapons depots, requiring fewer troops.

The discovery that Hezbollah has set up camps close to some of the depots, however, has renewed concern that as the chaos in Syria deepens, the country's huge chemical weapons stockpiles could fall into the wrong hands. Hezbollah fighters have been training at "a limited number of these sites," said one senior U.S. official who has been briefed on the intelligence reports and spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern."

So far, there is no evidence that Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon but has become increasingly active protecting the government of President Bashar Assad, is making any effort to gain control over the chemical weapons. Its decision to train fighters close to the major chemical sites, some officials speculate, could be rooted in a bet that their camps will not be bombed if the West believes there is a risk of hitting the stockpiles.

Assad has threatened to retaliate beyond his country's borders if outside forces try to break the current stalemate to unseat him, and there is renewed concern about whether he or his proxies might use the chemical weapons as their last shield. Officials say that attacks along the borders with Turkey and Israel have forced the administration to consider the risks of Syria's troubles spreading in the region.

Obama has been clear for more than a year that he would resist direct U.S. intervention, but in August he said one circumstance would cause him to revisit that position.

"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," he said at a news conference. "That would change my calculus."

Obama brought those concerns up again in a news conference Wednesday, saying that the United States was in close contact with Turkey and Jordan "and obviously Israel, which is having already grave concerns as we do about, for example, movements of chemical weapons that might occur in such a chaotic atmosphere and that could have an impact not just within Syria but on the region as a whole."

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