With the days and weeks of the Syrian government appearing numbered, the Central Intelligence Agency is scrambling to get a handle on the locations of the country's chemical and biological weapons before it’s too late.
While assessing the composition, loyalties, and background of the rebel groups poised to take power in the event President Bashar al-Assad falls.
Obama administration officials tell The Daily Beast that the CIA has sent officers to the region to assess Syria’s weapons program. One major task for the CIA right now is to work with military defectors to find out as much information on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.
According to one U.S. official with access to Syrian intelligence. Another focus will be to sort through reams of intercepted phone calls and emails, satellite images, and other collected intelligence to find the exact locations of the Syrian weapons, this official said.
This task has become more urgent in recent days. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reportedthat the Syrian military was moving its chemical weapons out of storage. On July 17, Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq, told the BBCthe regime would not hesitate to use chemical weapons against the rebel fighters.
On Wednesday, a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the brother-in-law of President al-Assad in Damascus. The blow to the al-Assad cabinet raised the prospect that the Syrian regime may be on its last legs.
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declined to provide details on what intelligence assets have been sent to Syria or to say whether the CIA has sent officers on the ground there.
He said that the administration had recently deployed "the resources necessary to collect the information that we need to make a good decision on chemical and biological [weapons], opposition groups and leadership transition strategies." But, he added, "We don’t know nearly what we need to know to be completely effective if the regime were to implode tomorrow."
Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Joint Command, said that his forces would not halt their latest campaign until the city had been conquered.
“We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital,” he said. “We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus. We only have light weapons, but it’s enough.” The fighting dubbed Damascus Volcano by the rebels — has moved close to the city centre for the first time since the violence began 17 months ago.
The Government used helicopters to strafe parts of the city centre, witnesses said. There were conflicting reports that a helicopter may have been shot down by rebels in the Al-Qaboun district.
“The streets are completely empty, the shops are closed. People are terrified of what’s next,” said Omar Qabouni, an activist. He said that eight people were killed by regime mortar and tank fire.
As fighting spread close to key government and security quarters, there were fears that the regime could resort to using chemical weapons. In any case, with rebels fighting reinforced regime units, the Free Syrian Army’s push is expected to take a long time to make gains.
Mr Fares, a former senior security official in Damascus, told the BBC that his former boss was like “a wounded wolf, and cornered”. He added: “There is information, unconfirmed, that chemical weapons have been used partially in the city of Homs.
“I have absolute conviction that if the circle of the Syrian people became tighter on the regime, the regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons.”
Mr Fares also accused his Government of using al-Qaeda suicide bombers against its own facilities to scare the West into thinking that Syria could become an Iraq-style quagmire should it intervene.
Syria is believed to have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, including the nerve gases VX and Sarin as well as mustard gas and cyanide.
Israel is worried that Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia in neighbouring Lebanon, could take control of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons and has warned that such a development could force it to take military action.
Syria never signed the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty that bans the use, stockpiling, or production of chemical weapons. Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, said he understands Syria’s stockpiles to be “massive.”
The rest of the stories.