WASHINGTON — The White House and its allies are weighing military options to secure Syria's chemical and biological weapons, after U.S. intelligence reports show the Syrian regime may be readying those weapons and may be desperate enough to use them, U.S. officials said Monday.
President Barack Obama, in a speech at the National Defense University on Monday, pointedly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use the weapons.
Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching, Obama said. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, said she wouldn't outline any specifics.
But suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur, Clinton said.
Options now being considered range from aerial strikes to limited raids by regional forces to secure the stockpiles, according to one current U.S. official, and one former U.S. official, briefed on the matter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The administration remains reluctant to dispatch U.S. forces into Syria, but a U.S. special operations training team is in neighboring Jordan, teaching troops there how to safely secure such sites together with other troops from the region, the officials said.
The warnings come after U.S. intelligence detected signs the Syrian regime was moving the chemical weapons components around within several of Syria's chemical weapons sites in recent days, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials speaking on Monday. Two officials said the activities did not involve movement of components in or out of various sites, but the movement was confined to within the individual locations.
One of the officials said they were seeing activities they had not seen before that bear further scrutiny.
According to another senior U.S. official, the U.S. is worried about indications of preparations for a possible use of the chemical weapons.
Also, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications within the last six months between Iran's infamous Quds Force, urging Syrian regime members to use its supplies of toxic Sarin gas against rebels and the civilians supporting them in the besieged city of Homs, the former U.S. official said.
An administration official said the trigger for U.S. action of some kind is the use of chemical weapons, or movement with the intent to use them, or the intent to provide them to a terrorist group like Hezbollah. The U.S. is trying to determine whether the recent movement detected in Syria falls into any of those categories, the official said.
Meanwhile, fighting raged near the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday, forcing an inbound commercial jet to turn back, while the U.N. said it was withdrawing staff because of deteriorating security conditions.
Lebanese security officials said Jihad Makdissi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman known for defending the regime in fluent English, flew from Beirut to London. But it was not immediately clear whether he had defected.