BEIRUT — The U.S. and regional allies are closely monitoring Syria's chemical weapons — caught in the midst of a raging civil war — but options for securing the toxic agents stuffed into shells, bombs and missiles are fraught with risk.
President Bashar Assad's embattled regime is believed to have one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world. Fears have risen that a cornered Assad might use them or that they could fall into the hands of extremists, whether the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, an Assad ally, or al-Qaida-linked militants among the rebels.
For now, the main storage and productions sites are considered secure. However, some suggest the civil war poses one of the gravest risks of losing control over non-conventional weapons since the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
Syria's suspected arsenal is scattered across a number of locations, mainly in the north and west, where fighting between Assad's forces and rebels seeking to oust him has been heaviest.
"We need to be up front that this is not something very easy to do," Steven Bucci, a former senior Defense Department official, said of attempts to keep the weapons locked up.
Airstrikes on chemical weapons depots could inadvertently release toxic clouds or expose them to looters. A ground operation would require thousands of troops. Pinpoint operations by special forces could easily go wrong.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney has said he would send U.S. troops into Syria if needed to prevent the spread of chemical weapons, while President Barack Obama has said that movement or use of chemical weapons would have "enormous consequences."
Syria's suspected arsenal is scattered across a number of locations.