We learned yesterday from the Wall Street Journal that an elite army unit called “Unit 450,” made up entirely of Alawite Muslims loyal to President Assad, have been moving stocks of chemical weapons to as many as 50 sites around the country:
Unit 450—a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that manages the regime’s overall chemicals weapons program—has been moving the stocks around for months, officials and lawmakers briefed on the intelligence said.
Movements occurred as recently as last week, the officials said, after Mr. Obama said he was preparing to launch strikes.
The unit is in charge of mixing and deploying chemical munitions, and it provides security at chemical sites, according to U.S. and European intelligence agencies. It is composed of officers from Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect. One diplomat briefed on the unit said it was Alawite from “janitor to commander.”
U.S. military officials have looked into the possibility of gaining influence over members of Unit 450 through inducements or threats. “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.
Now, the chief of rebel forces, General Salim Idris, is accusing the Assad regime of moving chemical weapons stockpiles clear out of the country into Iraq and Lebanon.
The head of the opposition Free Syrian Army told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday he has intelligence showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is moving its chemical weapons out of the country.
“Today, we have information that the regime began to move chemical materials and chemical weapons to Lebanon and to Iraq,” Gen. Salim Idriss said from inside Syria.
CNN could not independently verify Idriss’ claim.
Several senior Israeli officials told CNN’s Elise Labott that they have not seen movements into Lebanon or Iraq, and that they did not believe it made sense for the Syrians to be moving weapons so soon.
And Iraq categorically denied that chemical weapons had crossed into its territory, with an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speculating “there is a political agency behind this claim.”
“We were the victims of chemical weapons under Saddam’s regime,” said the adviser, Ali al-Moussawi. “And we will never allow to let any country to transfer chemical materials to our lands at all.”
Still, if the allegation were true, it could fundamentally shift the assessments of U.S. intelligence officials, CNN’s Barbara Starr reports.
Namely, these officials have said that al-Assad would not disperse his stockpile of chemical weapons because he knows the United States would not bomb it, that Syrian security forces firmly control the weapons and that there exists a large, secure infrastructure that has been moving these arms from rebel-held areas.
Moving these weapons into Iraq, Lebanon or some other country outside Syria might prompt U.S. intelligence authorities to question whether they were being transferred by a rogue element or whether it was evidence of a crack in the government’s control.
The Syrian opposition is afraid, Idriss told CNN’s Amanpour, that al-Assad’s forces will then use those weapons sometime in the future — even after the international effort to collect and destroy its chemical weapons arsenal is finished.
The US has a very good idea of where most of Assad’s chemical stockpiles are, despite efforts to disperse them. And Israel would be especially vigilant if Hezbollah were assisting Assad in moving the weapons into the terrorist group’s southern Lebanese strongholds. So it would seem that General Idris has either been misinformed, or is just stirring the pot a bit.
Also in doubt is the rebel’s stance on UN inspectors and granting them freedom of movement to disarm the Assad regime of WMD.
The FSA leader indicated that his forces would support UN weapon inspectors, once they arrive in the country.
But rebel forces’ cooperation with the inspection teams would be “complicated,” since the Russian deal is roiling other factions within the anti-Assad forces.
“Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people,” Idris said.
“A crime against humanity has been committed and there is not any mention of accountability,” he added.
To that end, Qassim Saadeddine, a member of the FSA military council, on Saturday rejected the Russia plan and refused to provide support for the inspections.
“Let the [Russia] plan go to hell,” he said. “We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria,” Saadeddine added.
Regardless of whether the rebels cooperate or not in Assad’s disarming, one US general says that it will be years before the task is completed:
Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of DOD intelligence, said Thursday it could take as long as seven years to fully account for Syria’s stockpile if a deal is reached.
“I do not have a [high] level of confidence to get through this first iteration” of getting the weapons accounted for, he said.
“I’m hopeful that there’s clear, cool-headed . . . very long-view thinking and decision-making done,” on how to secure the Syrian weapon sites, Flynn said.
That said, “I’m not confident that it’s going to happen overnight.”
At this point, it seems unlikely that the threat of force against Assad will be revived by the Obama administration. Obama’s master, Vladimir Putin, has forbidden it and with most of the world on board with this diplomatic track, it doesn’t seem possible that Obama would go it alone to deliver an “unbelievably small” strike on the dictator.
I wrote this earlier at AT:
Putin’s victory is now complete. He didn’t want a red line on the use of force. There is no red line. He didn’t want Assad hauled before the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. He won’t be. He doesn’t want a UN resolution that includes the threat of force. It won’t. He didn’t want regime change. It’s now very doubtful that will happen.
In every instance above, what Obama wanted he didn’t get and what Putin wanted he got.
“Smart” diplomacy, indeed.