According to a report in the New York Times, in late November top Israeli commanders alerted the Pentagon to intelligence picked up by satellite that suggested Syrian troops were mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Soon after U.S. President Obama was informed, and officials told him that were the Syrians to use the weapons the U.S. might not be able to stop them.
According to the Times, what followed next was a “a remarkable show of international cooperation” in which both opponents and supporters of Bashar al-Assad, such as China and Russia, pressed Syria to halt whatever steps towards the use of chemical weapons the country might have been taking.
According to the Times, “The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation.”
In the West, however, fears still persist that an increasingly desperate and isolated Bashar al-Assad will use chemical weapons as a last-ditch effort to save his regime. According to the Times article, the chemical munitions are still in storage areas that are near or on Syrian air bases, ready for deployment on short notice, officials said.
President Obama has threatened that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red-line” and reports have surfaced that Israel has elite troops working in Syria to stem the flow of chemical weapons, but despite threats it remains unclear how, exactly, these two countries would respond were chemical weapons to be used by Syria.
According to the Times, Syria’s chemical weapons are under the control of a secretive Syrian air force organization called Unit 450, “a highly vetted outfit that is deemed one of the most loyal to the Assad government given the importance of the weapons in its custody.”
American officials said that some of the back-channel messages in recent weeks were directed at the commanders of this unit, warning them that they would be held personally responsible if the government used its chemical weapons.