The U.S. and regional allies are closely monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons — caught in a raging civil war — but options for securing the toxic agents stuffed into shells, bombs and missiles are fraught with risk.
President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime is believed to have one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world. Fears have risen that a cornered Assad might use them or that they could fall into the hands of extremists, whether the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, an Assad ally, or al-Qaida-inspired militants among the rebels.
For now, the main storage and production sites are considered secure. However, some suggest the civil war poses one of the gravest risks of losing control over nonconventional weapons since the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
Syria’s suspected arsenal is scattered across a number of locations, mainly in the north and west, where fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels seeking to oust him has been heaviest.
“We need to be up front that this is not something very easy to do,” Steven Bucci, a former senior Defense Department official, said of attempts to keep weapons locked up.
The price of military action against the arsenal is prohibitively high, Bucci and others say.
Airstrikes on chemical weapons depots could inadvertently release toxic clouds or expose them to looters. A ground operation would require thousands of troops, and the U.S. administration has pushed back on any suggestion of direct military action in Syria. Pinpoint operations by special forces could easily go wrong.
Syria is believed to have hundreds of tons of chemical agents, said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.