US Asks Turkey, Jordan to Watch Chemical Weapons

The United States has quietly asked Turkey and Jordan to keep an eye on Syria’s chemical weaponry, and possibly step in to manage them.

Chana Ya'ar,

US Defense Secy Leon Panetta
US Defense Secy Leon Panetta

The United States has quietly asked Turkey and Jordan to keep an eye on Syria’s chemical weaponry, and to step in to take responsibility for the ordnance, should the need arise.

With an arsenal estimated between 350 to 400 metric tons of chemical agents spread out at sites across the country and a raging civil war, Syria is fast becoming one of the top headaches in U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term.

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s options grow more narrow by the day, Western concern over the arsenal is rising. Thousands of chemical protective gear were sent by the U.S. to Syria’s bordering nations, both of whom have diplomatic ties with Israel, although Turkey’s ties are tenuous.

News of the move was published Thursday in an article written by R. Jeffrey Smith for The Center for Public Integrity. Smith quoted U.S. and Western officials as saying Western governments have also started training Jordanian and Turkish personnel to use the equipment “so they have the capability to protect the Syrian nerve agent depots if needed – at least for a short time.”

He noted that his article was “based on conversations about international planning for the disposition of the Syrian stockpile with a half dozen U.S. and foreign officials who have direct knowledge of the matter but declined to be named due to the political and security sensitivities surrounding their work.”    

But neither Jordan nor Turkey has agreed to take up the mantle presented by Washington. Moreover, an unspoken agreement seems to be in place on maintaining silence over what Israel might decide to do, should Assad fall.

At a January 10 briefing, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters the main concern is such a scenario, is “how do we secure the CBW (chemical and biological weapons) sites? ... And that is a discussion that we are having not only with the Israelis,” he said, “but with other countries in the region... We’re not working on options that involve [U.S. boots on the ground.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that he will not allow chemical weapons to threaten his country's citizens from its northern neighbor.

The arsenal includes mustard gas and lethal nerve agents sarin and VX, comprised of two chemicals that must be mixed in order to work. The risk is minimized if one agent is eliminated. But even medical workers may face trouble if they have to deal with victims who have been contaminated, and entire villages along the borders are at risk if clouds nerve gas are fired, or waft in their direction.

Hence the delivery of chemical protective suits, detection equipment and decontamination gear since late autumn, and agreement by Jordan and Turkey to receive the items and training in how to use them. 

Talks have apparently also been launched with Iraq and Russia in an effort to plot a course for withdrawal of the chemical agents from Syria, should Assad lose his grip on the weaponry.

The strategy is being seen as a way of avoiding intervention by U.S. armed forces in the region, in case the Syrian military personnel guarding the arsenal suddenly abandon their posts.

Such an event would leave the lethal stockpile open to theft by numerous radical Islamist terror groups present in the country, among them Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nasra, and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah terrorist organization, as well as Iran’s own Revolutionary Guards. 

“The options are not good in any scenario,” Smith quoted a senior official as saying.