Even before Syria faced what looked like an inevitable U.S. strike, an elite military unit of the Syrian army began spreading out the country's supply of chemical weapons to more than 50 locations. And that move could complicate the current international effort to come to a diplomatic solution on Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, according to a late Thursday report in the Wall Street Journal. That report also serves as an in-depth look into the secretive force responsible for managing the weapons.
Basically, the Journal reports, a subset of the Syrian military wing responsible for managing the country's chemical weapons supplies started moving around their stash months ago. Those moves lasted through last week, when a U.S. strike on Syrian targets related to the country's chemical weapons program seemed inevitable. The U.S. can track the movements of the force in charge of guarding them, but can't precisely determine what is being moved where. The effect: the U.S. isn't quite as sure as they were six months ago that they know exactly where those weapons are.
The U.S. is currently involved in international negotiations to get Syria to turn over their stash to the international community. As part of that plan, Syria asked to join the U.N.'s treaty banning their use, which would require Bashar al-Assad's government to disclose his current supply, and destroy them. The U.S. would like to see a disclosure from Assad ASAP, much faster than the 60-day deadline set by the U.N.'s chemical weapons agreement. That request for speed comes with U.S. skepticism towards the actual implementation of any plan to disarm Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. Assad acknowledged for the first time that he had chemical weapons in his possession on Thursday.
The unit responsible for protecting, moving, and using the country's chemical weapons supply is called Unit 450. And they're extremely close to each other, more or less dashing U.S. plans to try and infiltrate or compromise its members in order to find out more — or gain some control over — Assad's stockpile. The Journal explains:
"In a perfect world, you would actually like to co-opt that unit. Who cares who pays them as long as they sit on the chemical weapons," said a senior U.S. military official.
Although the option remains on the table, government experts say the unit is so close knit that they doubt any member could break ranks without being exposed and killed.
Until recently, unit 450 kept all of the country's chemical weapons stockpile in just a few locations. But that changed, and now the weapons are located in over 50 places, U.S. intelligence thinks. And further complicating any planned strike, the Journal explains, the elite unit itself seems to pose a unique dilemma for the U.S.: even as the Pentagon reportedly places Unit 450 commanders on a list of possible targets, officials know they can't really wipe out the force's ability to do it's job:
The U.S. wants any military strikes in Syria to send a message to the heads of Unit 450 that there is a steep price for following orders to use chemical weapons, U.S. officials said.
At the same time, the U.S. doesn't want any strike to destabilize the unit so much that it loses control of its chemical weapons, giving rebels a chance to seize the arsenal.
In other words, the people the U.S. believes are responsible for killing children with poison gas are also the U.S.'s best hope for keeping those weapons under control.