Israel is keeping a close eye on developments in Syria amid reports that President Bashar Assad's regime or the rebels fighting him are on the verge of using chemical weapons. The Sunday Times reported that Israeli special forces were operating in Syria to track the regime’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons. The operation is part of a "secret war" to monitor Syria’s non-conventional armaments and sabotage their development, the British publication stated.
“For years we’ve known the exact location of Syria’s chemical and biological munitions,” an Israeli source told the Sunday Times, referring to the country’s spy satellites and drones. “But in the past week we’ve got signs that munitions have been moved to new locations.”
Meanwhile, rebel forces released a video on Saturday claiming to show victims of a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Assad regime. Several men and an elderly woman were shown in a makeshift hospital with bandages covering their damaged faces. As of Sunday afternoon the video's authenticity or the veracity of the rebels' claims had yet to be confirmed by any outside or third-party source.
The rebels also said over the weekend that they have succeeded in capturing most of the territory in Syria that borders Israel, and the United Nations said it planned to reinforce its units stationed on the Golan Heights as a result. The U.N. is concerned about the violence spilling into Israel, as well as other extreme developments that could ignite the region.
No official Israeli representative, however, has thus far said whether any order has been given to reinforce Israel Defense Forces positions along the Syrian line.
The growing fear that the civil war in Syria could unleash the world's first use of chemical weapons in nearly three decades is based on two grim scenarios — neither considered likely but both carrying risks of civilian massacre and a major escalation of violence.
The first is that Assad, in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, would order chemical attacks — either as a limited demonstration to the rebels of his willingness to use the internationally banned weapons, or in a large-scale offensive designed to turn the tide of a conflict that already has killed an estimated 40,000.
The second is that some portion of Assad's arsenal could be moved to Iran or Lebanon or fall into the hands of foreign fighters with ties to terrorist groups who are helping Syrian rebels. The Syrian Foreign Ministry claimed over the weekend that rebels captured a plant that manufactures toxic chlorine near the city of Aleppo, but did not say whether the plant was used to weaponize the chemical.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Saturday that he has seen "some evidence" that Assad's regime is preparing to use chemical weapons against rebels and that military intervention had not been ruled out.
"We and the U.S…. have seen some evidence of that and that is why we have issued strong warnings about it. We have done so directly to the Syrian regime," French news agency AFP quoted Hague as saying. Asked what evidence had been presented, Hague said "we absolutely cannot be specific about that because clearly those are intelligence sources that these things come from."
Global concerns over Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles intensified after U.S. officials privately said last week that the regime had begun mixing precursor chemicals that could be used for the lethal nerve agent sarin.
News confirmed by The Associated Press this week that an unknown number of weapons in Syria were recently loaded with sarin exacerbated the West's fears.
Syria has never confirmed that it even has chemical weapons. But it is believed to possess substantial stockpiles of mustard gas and a range of nerve agents, including sarin, a highly toxic substance that can suffocate its victims by paralyzing muscles around their lungs.
James Quinlivan, a Rand Corp. analyst who studies the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, said Syria is thought to have hundreds of tons of chemical weapons material, including not only sarin and mustard gas but possibly also the nerve agent VX, which, like sarin, kills by attacking the central nervous system.
The precise dimensions of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal are not known, in part because it has never been subjected to outside inspection. Experts say it is a formidable collection, but the weapons date back almost 40 years – when Assad's father, President Hafez Assad, began accumulating them – and have not been modernized.
"Frankly, you'd stand as much chance of committing a self-inflicted wound as of actually killing opponents," said Aram Nerguizian, a Mideast security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "These systems are not going to achieve the end state that the regime wants, which is regime survival."
For example, the arsenal apparently does not include weapons that combine or mix chemical ingredients after a shell or missile is fired; instead the mixing must be done manually prior to launching the weapon, Nerguizian said.
U.S. officials have warned Assad there would be unspecified "consequences" if he used his chemical weapons or lost control of them. That could include military intervention, aided perhaps by allies such as Turkey. The U.S. and its allies might also launch a pre-emptive military operation to secure the weapons before they could be used.
One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk publicly, defined what would trigger a response: The use of chemical weapons, or movement with the intent to use them, or word that they were falling into the hands of a group like Hezbollah, that the U.S. considers a terrorist group.
America and its allies have already begun preparing.
A U.S. special operations training team is in neighboring Jordan, teaching troops how to secure chemical stockpiles, according to one current and one former U.S. official briefed on the matter.
U.S. officials have said it could take as many as 75,000 ground troops to secure all of Syria's dozens of chemical sites in a worst-case scenario in which the intervention would face Syrian resistance. The Obama administration has been consulting with Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Russia and others on possible courses of action.
"We're prepared for the full range of contingencies," Pentagon press secretary George Little said Friday.
The U.S.-led NATO alliance this week agreed to move Patriot missiles to Turkey as a defensive measure. Patriots are capable of neutralizing a chemical warhead aboard a missile by incinerating it in flight, although a portion of the chemical could fall in populated areas.
Jeffrey White, a defense expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that in addition to air-delivered weapons, the Syrian military can put chemical warheads on missiles like the Soviet-designed Scud, as well as artillery shells and short-range rockets and fire them into populated areas.
"Without intelligence warnings from external sources, rebel combatants and civilians would be highly vulnerable to surprise chemical attacks, increasing the chances for major casualties," White wrote in policy paper this week. In his view, Washington should be prepared for the "growing possibility" of chemical attacks in Syria.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the U.S. is concerned that "as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons."
Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht said Assad and his minority Alawite tribe view the fight against the rebels as a "war to the death." Thus, "it's not at all inconceivable that he would use" his chemical arms, he said.
"There is no telling what a mad dog will do when it's cornered," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He added he still finds it hard to believe Assad would take that step.
Some experts believe a more likely scenario is that groups with terrorist ties who are helping the rebels might acquire some of Assad's weapons of mass destruction.
"I think the big problem is when and if Assad loses control of his weapons and sites," said David Friedman, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces chemical-biological protection division. "Then, of course, weapons might fall into opposition hands and they might use it. This is a real danger and threat."
Earlier this week, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in a TV interview that Syria would not use chemical weapons against its own people.
"We cannot possibly commit suicide," he said. "Syria is a responsible country."
Meanwhile, rebel commanders from across Syria have joined forces under a united command they hope will increase coordination between diverse fighting groups and streamline the pathway for arms essential to their struggle against Assad's regime.
While many of the brigades involved in the fighting are decidedly Islamist in outlook and some have boasted about executing captured soldiers, two of the most extreme groups fighting in Syria were not invited to the rebel meeting in Turkey or included in the new council – a move that could encourage Western support.
The new body, expected to be announced officially on Sunday, hopes to form the basis of a united rebel front.
Some 500 delegates elected the 30-person Supreme Military Council and a Chief of Staff on Friday and planned to meet soon with representatives from the opposition's newly reorganized political leadership, participants said.
"The aim of this meeting was to unify the armed opposition to bring down the regime," said a rebel commander from near Damascus who attended the meeting. "It also aims to get the situation under control once the regime falls."
Britain, France, Turkey and several Gulf Arab nations have recognized the National Alliance, effectively considering it a government in exile.
The U.S. is expected to recognize it at an international "Friends of Syria" conference in Marakesh, Morocco, that begins Wednesday.
It remains unclear how the new military command will relate to the National Alliance and whether foreign powers will back it.
But two of Syria's most extreme rebel groups were not included: Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed deadly suicide bombings and is believed to be linked to al-Qaida, and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamic fundamentalist brigade comprising foreign jihadists.
U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is preparing to designate Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.
The Syrian government did not comment on the new rebel command and throughout the uprising has considered the rebels terrorists backed by foreign powers that seek to destroy the country.