Obama Warns Syria Against Using Chemical Weapons

Amid reports that the Syrian government is moving their stockpiles of chemical weapons, American policymakers are growing increasingly alarmed. They're concerned that the fighting could enter a deadlier phase or the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the Syrian government will be held accountable for any use of the weapons. But officials are worried they have limited options to do anything to prevent it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with fears of escalation in Syria. The country is believed to maintain a stockpile of chemical weapons and this week, the Syrian regime threatened to use them in the event of a foreign attack. That threat got the attention of the United States. President Obama had a message for Syria's president.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Given the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States, should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons.

CORNISH: As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the U.S. military is planning for the worst.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: One official, after being briefed on Syria's chemical weapons program, says he's deathly afraid, afraid because of the scale of the program and the lack of any good options to deal with it. Syria is thought to have dozens of manufacturing and storage sites for chemicals which can be loaded into hundreds of missiles or artillery shells.

CHARLES BLAIR: It's believed that they have a hundred to thousands of tons of different types of chemical agents.

BOWMAN: That's Charles Blair with the Federation of American Scientists. He studied those Syrian weapons. He says the arsenal includes mustard agent, the type used during World War I that can create blisters in the lungs. More troubling, he says, is the Syrians are believed to have two types of nerve agent, Sarin and VX.

BLAIR: VX is, in terms of its toxicity and lethality, it's the most potent of all the chemical weapons. It's extraordinarily lethal.

BOWMAN: So lethal that nerve agents can kill within minutes. Saddam Hussein used them to kill thousands of Iranian troops in the 1980s and later against hundreds of Kurdish men, women and children in his own country. Still, some analysts caution that we don't know for sure how many or what type of chemicals Syria has in its arsenal.

The numbers are based on intelligence reports. Such reports can be sketchy. Michael Eisenstadt is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says that U.S. intelligence has gotten it wrong before.

MICHAEL EISENSTADT: We have to look back at our experience in dealing with Iraq and Libya where repeatedly our intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction had been inaccurate in some very important ways.

BOWMAN: Eisenstadt says the U.S. overestimated the size of Libya's chemical weapons program and only learned the truth when Gadhafi fell from power.

EISENSTADT: We should probably be very careful and modest about what we think we know about Syria's program.

BOWMAN: Still, even if it's not clear how many chemical weapons Syria has, most government and private reports conclude that Syria has something.

EISENSTADT: To the best of our knowledge, they do have chemical weapon production facilities that they've been acquiring precursors from abroad and that there is some kind of capability.

BOWMAN: Syria is one of a small number of nations, including Egypt and Israel, that has not signed or ratified the chemical weapons convention. The treaty prohibits production, stockpiling and use of such weapons and there's no hard evidence that Syria has ever used them. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Syria had better keep it that way.

LEON PANETTA: We've made very clear to them that they have a responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites and that we will hold them responsible.

BOWMAN: Just in case, the Pentagon is looking at options for seizing or destroying Syria's chemical arsenal should the regime fall or terrorists threaten to grab those weapons. Military officials say there are two options, put troops on the ground to secure the sites or bomb them. The troop option is not easy. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of troops would be needed, says those who have been briefed by the Pentagon.

And the bombing option carries particular risks, says Charles Blair of the Federation of American Scientists. By trying to destroy the chemical weapons, he says, you may end up releasing a deadly cloud.

BLAIR: And what you would have is you would actually be spreading the agent itself out into the atmosphere.

BOWMAN: That's why one official said when it comes to Syria's chemical weapons, there are no good options. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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