The Syrian government may have moved some of its chemical weapons to safeguard them against rebel forces, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Friday press conference.
While some weapons were moved to locations unknown to US intelligence, Panetta said the main storage sites remain secure and under government control.
“There has been intelligence that there have been some moves that have taken place. Where exactly that’s taken place, we don’t know,” the defense secretary told reporters at the Pentagon. “I don’t have any specific information about the opposition and whether or not they’ve obtained some of this or how much they’ve obtained and just exactly what’s taken place.”
Panetta’s press conference was the first time the Pentagon confirmed movements of at least some of the chemical weapons to locations even the Central Intelligence Agency could not determine. As a result of the move, US officials are worried the weapons could come into the hands of the opposition. After Panetta was asked whether or not Iran’s Revolutionary Guard or the rebel forces may have gained access to the chemical weapons, he said he cannot confirm or deny it, leaving open the possibility that this could be the case.
Syria is in possession of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas, and cyanide, and the move of weapons has caused alarm in Washington, the Associated Press reports.
Damascus, which never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, is believed to have one of the largest chemical and biological weapons stockpile in the Middle East. Some US officials have previously expressed fear that the Syrian government may use the weapons against the rebels or civilians as part of an “ethnic cleansing” routine, the Wall Street Journal reported in July.
“This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch,” an unnamed US official told the Journal. “This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.”
President Barack Obama said last month that chemical or biological warfare in Syria would not be tolerated by the US. If that becomes the case, Syria would face “enormous consequences.”
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to the other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said at a news conference on Aug. 20. “That would change my calculus.”
Obama also said he was “absolutely confident” that the weapons stockpile was secure. With weapons being moved in Syria without US knowledge, the Pentagon is now emphasizing the security of the chemical main storage sites, as it has lost control over some of the other storage facilities.
But the Syrian regime in July clarified that it would only use the weapons if it was attacked by outside forces.
“No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used… no matter what the developments inside Syria,” said Jihad Makdisai, the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, at a press conference in July. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”