Elite Syrian army unit dispersing chemical weapons stocks all over the country
Where are Syria's chemical weapons stocks?
Please call the CIA if you know. They're having a little trouble tracking them as an army unit made entirely of President Assad's fanatically devoted Alawite sect - known as Unit 450 - has moved the gas to at least 50 sites around the country.
The movements, activities and base locations of Unit 450 are so sensitive that the U.S. won't share information with even trusted allies in the opposition for fear the unit would be overrun by rebels, said current and former U.S. officials.
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.
"Attacking Unit 450, assuming we have any idea where they actually are, would be a pretty tricky affair because...if you attack them you may reduce the security of their weapons, which is something we certainly don't want," said Jeffrey White, a veteran of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a defense fellow at The Washington Institute.
Within Syria, little is known about Unit 450 or the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. One of the buildings is in a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Damascus.
Even high-ranking defectors from the Syrian military that form the core of the rebel insurgency--including those who served in units trained to handle chemical attacks--said they hadn't heard of Unit 450.
The Pentagon has prepared multiple target lists for possible strikes, some of which include commanders of Unit 450.
But a senior U.S. official said no decision has been made to target them, reflecting the challenge of sending a message to Unit 450 without destabilizing it.
In some respects, officials said, the hands-on role that Unit 450 plays in safeguarding the regime's chemical weapons secrets makes it too valuable for the U.S. to eliminate, even though the U.S. believes the unit is directly responsible for the alleged chemical weapons abuses.
Satellites can track the trucks from Unit 450 but are unable to guarantee that what's loaded on them isn't baby food.
And this isn't going to inspire much confidence in our ability to verify that Assad has complied with international treaties on chemical weapons:
U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies still believe they know where most of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons are located, but with less confidence than six months ago, U.S. officials said.
It's not like tiddly-winks where you can be close but not on the money to score. In order to make the deal with Assad work, our intelligence has to nail it down almost completely. Assad could very well play the Saddam long game and delay, obfuscate, or otherwise mask where these weapons are. It can go on for years - as long as Obama is wedded to the idea that Assad is doing just enough to avoid an attack.
Dispersing the weapons to so many sites only makes diplomacy that much harder. And the fact that we don't know or aren't sure where a lot of Assad's stockpiles are makes it likely that Assad will try to get away with keeping at least some of his WMD arsenal.