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The diplomatic sources say defense contractors hired by the US and its European allies have recently conducted training exercises with Syrian rebel forces in Turkey and Jordan. The programs were intended to prepare brigades to handle chemical weapons sites and materials they might encounter, as Assad troops lose control of over parts of the country. US contractors have also been on the ground in Syria to monitor the status of regime stockpiles, said an employee with a major US defense consultancy that has been engaged in that work.
“They’re probably trying to provide near real-time surveillance at all these sites. There’s no point in limiting yourself,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He emphasized that any training of rebel fighters would represent just one element of contingency planning underway and said it would be incorrect to assume that training rebels is “the only hope”.
The State Department affirmed its concern over Syria’s chemical weapons, concerns that have been discussed with opposition leaders, but would not comment directly on the details of this report. The Defense Department hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the revelations.
Tim Brown, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, said he would be “shocked” if the US did not already have covert counter-proliferation forces on the ground, working with allies and regime defectors to monitor chemical weapon stockpiles.
Brown, who is an expert in using satellite imagery to detect chemical weapons, said there is a limit to what satellite imagery and other aerial reconnaissance can reveal about the state of chemical weapons. Concerned countries would need “eyes on the ground” to evaluate the status of sites, especially if chemical weapons are being moved.
“What is the signature of the movements? Are there heavily guarded convoys? The smaller the movement, the harder it is to detect [from the sky],” Brown said.
According to one of the diplomats, an Arab official, there are 24-hour Skype links connecting the US with rebel brigades, to enhance monitoring of chemical weapons sites on the ground. He also said there are training operations in effect in Jordan, where the US Defense Department has placed roughly 150 Army special operations soldiers to work with Jordanian troops on chemical and biological weapons security.
Syria is believed to have the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East and the fourth largest in the world, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). European diplomats say there are dozens of individual chemical weapons sites in Syria, mostly in the southern and western parts of the country. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one former US security official still involved in the issue says Syria’s stockpiles equate to “tons and tons of physical agent,” such as mustard gas, sarin, cyanide gas, and VX, a powerful nerve agent.
The US has said it holds the Assad government responsible for securing its chemical weapons, keeping them from falling into terrorist hands. For now, the sites still appear to be under the regime’s domain. Opposition leaders tell Syria Deeply that even though swaths of Syrian terrain have slipped out of Assad’s sovereignty, no weapons sites have yet come under rebel control.
One opposition leader, Wael Merza, said the dissidents have reached out to current members of the Assad regime who handle chemical weapons intelligence. He said those regime officials have been asked to cooperate on securing the stockpiles and ensure the continuity of this effort during any transition to a post-Assad Syria. Merza would not say whether or how regime officials responded to the request.
According to the IISS report, the greatest danger for Syria’s chemical weapons is that non-state actors like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah could gain access to dangerous materials, posing a threat to Israel and the region at large. Islamist rebel groups have been at the forefront of battle and some are believed to have links with Al Qaeda.
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But even the more moderate rebel groups, aligned with the Free Syrian Army, aren’t seen as capable of safely managing the hand-off of chemical weapons facilities. Rebel brigades tend to consist of poorly trained, poorly equipped and hastily combined fighters.
Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the US and its allies would be cautious about letting rebels take the lead in securing chemical weapons sites.
“It’s all very well to train groups…but the problem is that these rebels don’t have adequate equipment or training. Much could potentially go wrong” said Cordesman.
The former US security official agreed. “There’s no way a normal civilian rebel can handle these sites safely…there’s no way, if these guys are going in within two or three weeks from now, that they’re going to be ready,” the official said.
Over the past week, concerns have spiked over Syria’s chemical weapons, as US officials say Syria is preparing chemical weapons for possible use. The US and members of the opposition fear the Assad regime could use its chemical arsenal in a desperate move for political survival, especially as the fighting in Syria encircles the capital of Damascus. The Assad regime has insisted it would not use the weapons on its own people.
As the Assad regime loses control of the country, there is still no unified force with a singular command ready to take its place. That doesn’t help the level of confidence as Western countries look to secure chemical weapons, possibly with rebel support.
“Mostly you’d use them as collectors of information,” said the former US security official. “The rebel groups are totally untrustworthy themselves.”