It's scary enough to think of what the Assad regime could do with the several hundred tons of chemical weapons that are scattered across Syria. It's simply horrifying to think of what terrorists would do. U.S. officials are well aware of the threat, and in recent weeks, the Pentagon has drafted up a number of plans for how to deal with the worst case scenarios. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed as much to The Washington Post this weekend but stopped short of detailing exactly what those plans would entail. What we do know, however, is that the United States and its European allies are working fast and hard to mobilize forces to protect those weapons and, hopefully, avert the unthinkable.
Let's start with the good news. If the Syrian rebels manage to take one of the many military facilities -- there are three major ones that we know of -- it's "unlikely that insurgents would know how to successfully detonate chemical munitions on their own," Adnan Silou, a retired Syrian general who defected earlier this year, told The Post. However, the main worry would be that they would sell or give them to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda or to Iran, who would know how to use them. "After the regime falls, anyone could take them," Silou said. Retired Army officer Michael Eisenstadt put it in even more dire terms. "It's almost inevitable," he said. "It may have already happened, for what we know."
This is why the United States is working with Israel, Jordan and the NATO allies to get troops to those sites as soon as possible. Private contractors are already on the ground training Syrian rebels how to guard the chemical weapons facilities. It's going to take a lot of troops to do it right, though. Analysts estimate that it'll take over 1,000 inspectors and specialists to secure the stockpile of nerve agents and mustard gas. Siou has proposed a plan whereby 2,000 defected Syrian officers called the Mountain Heroes would monitor the facilities and ultimately dismantle the weapons. And of course, Panetta and the Pentagon have their secret plans, plans that we hope we'll never have to see put into action.
The bad news is relatively simple. Despite all of the contingency plans, it only takes one stray warhead to cause an attack of catastrophic proportions. Chemical weapons don't kill a few people, after all. They kill thousands, and if the weapons make it out of Syria, that could mean thousands of Americans. It's no wonder Israel wanted to bomb the facilities and eradicate the threat a couple of weeks ago.