“We think we know everything, but we felt the same way about Libya,” said a former American intelligence official who was briefed on U.S. preparations for both conflicts. “We had been on the ground in Libya, yet there were big surprises, both in terms of quantities and locations.” The former official was one of several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
The collapse of government control in several Syrian provinces has prompted heightened scrutiny of the weapons depots by the United States and its allies in the region. It also has hastened preparations for securing the sites with foreign troops, the U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said.
Drawing from recent intelligence assessments, the officials believe that the Syrian arsenal contains several hundred tons of chemical weapons and precursors, including sizable quantities of battlefield-ready sarin, the deadly nerve agent.
The stockpile appears to be larger and more widely distributed than originally suspected, according to two officials who have seen the intelligence reports. They said the most dangerous chemical stocks are kept in bunkers in about a half-dozen locations, while as many as 14 other facilities are used to store or manufacture components.
Because of the risks posed by the stockpile, U.S. spy agencies have devoted enormous resources to monitoring the facilities through satellite imagery and to developing plans to safeguard the weapons if the crisis worsens, current and former U.S. officials said.
“It’s obvious that ensuring their security is paramount,” a U.S. official said. “Planning for different scenarios, consulting appropriately with allies and preparing to manage any new challenges is simply being responsible.”
Several current and former officials acknowledged the difficulty of securing chemical depots inside Syria, given the fighting underway and the likelihood of fierce resistance from Syrian forces to any incursions by outsiders. Some of the officials also conceded that there may be yet-undetected facilities within the country, roughly the size of Washington state.
The former U.S. intelligence official said North Korea and Russia have assisted Syria over the decades in constructing weapons facilities that are well-fortified and shielded from spy satellites. “They are masters at concealment,” the former official said.
In August, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said the Damascus government would never use chemical arms against its people, but he warned that it would unleash the weapons against what he called foreign invaders. He said the military was guarding the stockpile.