Pentagon officials have said that it could take tens of thousands of U.S. troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons as long as the civil war is raging. If the U.S. military intervened in Syria, it would almost certainly face attacks from Assad’s forces. Rebel fighters allied with al-Qaeda also would pose a threat.
Bombing Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile could be even riskier, military analysts said. Airstrikes could easily backfire by dispersing nerve gases and other chemicals over populated areas.
Last week, the Pentagon announced that additional U.S. troops would go to Jordan to help cope with a flood of refugees crossing the border from Syria, but also to plan for possible responses to any outbreak of chemical warfare. The new troops will bring the U.S. total to about 200.
The civil war in Syria has killed more than 70,000 people and turned more than 1 million Syrians into refugees. Despite the humanitarian toll, Obama has been wary of U.S. military involvement. The administration, however, has widened defensive and humanitarian support for the Syrian rebels.
U.S. caution irks rebels
The main Syrian rebel group criticized what it described as a tepid U.S. assessment of the chemical weapons claims.
“ ‘Small scale? Varying degrees of confidence?’ The leaders of the Free Syrian Army are certain that chemical weapons are being used in Syria, so we find this whole statement odd,” said Musab Abu Qatada, a spokesman for the Damascus military council, which is part of the Free Syrian Army.
U.S. officials invoked the mistakes of the Iraq war as they urged caution. The administration of George W. Bush deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003 based on notoriously erroneous intelligence that he possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“Don’t take from this that this is an automatic trigger,” said a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We have seen very bad movies before when intelligence is perceived to have driven policy decisions that, in the cold light of day, have been proven wrong.”
The administration provided no evidence in public Thursday that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, saying only that its conclusion was partly based on “physiological” data. That presumably means analyses of blood samples from victims, dead or alive, of at least one of four suspected instances of chemical weapons use since December.
Calls for tougher U.S. action have grown in recent weeks as claims that Assad loyalists have used chemical weapons have increased. Britain and France sent letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this month saying they had credible evidence that chemical weapons had been deployed.
According to senior diplomats and officials briefed on the British and French accounts, the evidence included soil samples and witness interviews that point toward the use of nerve agents in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.
On Tuesday, two senior Israeli military officials said research concluded that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on several occasions to kill dozens of rebel fighters. They said the evidence made them “nearly 100 percent certain.”
Whitlock reported from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Abigail Hauslohner and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut, Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.