The stepped-up preparations have coincided with increased military training in the region, including an unusually large multinational military exercise underway this month in Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor. U.S. and Jordanian officials separately have been discussing possible permanent bases in the country for small units of Marines or special operations troops who could be deployed rapidly in a crisis anywhere in the region, from the Syria border to Iraq, according to current and former government officials familiar with the talks.
“There’s a big worry that things could fall apart quickly,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who has been briefed about the contingency plans and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatically sensitive preparations. “A big problem can turn up on your doorstep overnight.”
Western intelligence agencies made similar plans to safeguard chemical munitions in Libya last year during the uprising there, particularly during the chaotic final weeks as Libyan troops deserted their bases ahead of the rebels’ final advance on Tripoli.
The Libyan arsenal, consisting mainly of bulk containers of degraded mustard agent, was deemed less dangerous than Syria’s battlefield-ready stock of more powerful nerve agents. Libya’s chemical weapons depots remained intact during the uprising, though thousands of other weapons of all kinds — from rocket-propelled grenades to shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles — went missing.
While Syria’s arsenal of deadly nerve agents tops the list of worries, the planning group — which has included elements of the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command on the U.S. side — also has sought to map out a response to other emergencies, from pilot-rescue operations to massive refugee flights to border violence as tribes along the Syrian frontier are drawn into skirmishes with government forces or rival groups, the officials said.
“There are contingencies for everything, up to and including taking back a province that has been seized by al-Qaeda,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official who has participated in the discussions.
While U.S. intelligence officials have conducted their own planning exercises for Syria, the increased coordination began early this year and intensified in recent months. An early advocate, Western diplomats say, was Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose country has witnessed cross-border shootings in addition to masses of Syrian refugees since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began 14 months ago.