A secretive Syrian military unit has been moving stocks of poison gases and munitions to as many as 50 sites to make them harder for the U.S. to track, American and Middle Eastern officials said on Thursday.
The movements of chemical weapons by Syria's elite Unit 450 could complicate any U.S. bombing campaign in Syria over its chemical attacks, the officials told The Wall Street Journal
Further, the activity raises questions about the implementation of a Russian proposal that calls for the regime to surrender control of its stockpiles, they said.
The U.S. estimates Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has 1,000 metric tons of chemical and biological agents.
"That is what we know about," a senior U.S. official told the Journal. "There might be more."
U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies said they still believe they know where most of the chemical weapons are located, but with less confidence than six months ago.
Secretary of State John Kerry met on Thursday in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss a proposal by President Vladimir Putin to turn over the weapons to international control.
Kerry bluntly rejected a Syrian pledge to begin a "standard process" by turning over information rather than weapons — and nothing immediately.
"This is not a game," Kerry declared at a news conference, as a stone-faced Lavrov stood at his side. "The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough."
The Obama administration has said that a chemical-weapons attack by the Syrian government on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 killed more than 1,400 people, including over 400 children.
Assad on Thursday again denied any involvement in the chemical attack, but he said that his government was prepared to sign an agreement banning the use of chemical weapons.
Syrian officials couldn't immediately be reached by the Journal for comment on the weapons.
A division of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, Unit 450 manages the regime's overall chemicals weapons program, according to the Journal. It 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 told the Journal, after President Barack 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 consists of officers from Assad's Alawite sect.
One diplomat briefed on the unit told the Journal that it was Alawite from "janitor to commander."
Meanwhile, U.S. military officials have investigated whether to gain influence over members of Unit 450 via inducements or threats.
"In a perfect world, you would actually like to co-opt that unit," a senior U.S. military official told the Journal. "Who cares who pays them, as long as they sit on the chemical weapons?"
Although the option remains on the table, government experts say the unit is so closely knit that they doubt whether any member would break ranks without being exposed and killed.
According to the Journal, the Assad regime traditionally kept most of its chemical and biological weapons at a few large sites in western Syria. But beginning about a year ago, the Syrians started dispersing the arsenal to nearly two dozen major sites, U.S. officials said.
Unit 450 also started using dozens of smaller sites. The U.S. now believes Assad's chemical arsenal has been scattered to as many as 50 locations in the west, north and south, as well as new sites in the east, officials told the Journal.
The U.S. is tracking Unit 450 vehicles by satellite as they disburse the chemical-weapons stocks. The imagery, however, does not always show what is being put on the trucks.
"We know a lot less than we did six months ago about where the chemical weapons are," one official told the Journal.
Though small in size, Unit 450 controls a huge infrastructure that makes it easier for the U.S. and Israel to track its movements, according to the Journal.
Chemical-weapons storage depots are guarded by the unit within larger compounds to provide multiple layers of security, U.S. officials said.
Whenever chemical munitions are deployed in the field, Unit 450 must pre-deploy heavy equipment to chemical-mixing areas, which the U.S. and Israel can track, the Journal reports.
The movements, activities and base locations of Unit 450 are so sensitive that the U.S. will not even share information with its trusted allies in the opposition for fear the unit would be overrun by rebels, current and former U.S. officials said.
The U.S. wants any Syrian military strikes to send a signal to the heads of Unit 450 that there is a steep price for following orders to use chemical weapons, U.S. officials said.
But the Obama administration also does not 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, the Journal reports.
"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," Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, told the Journal.
Even within Syria, little is known about Unit 450 or the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. One building is in a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Damascus, the Journal reports.
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 — told the Journal that they had not heard of Unit 450.
The Pentagon has prepared multiple target lists for possible strikes, some of which include commanders of Unit 450, the Journal reports.
But a senior U.S. official told the Journal that no decision had been made to target them, reflecting the challenge of sending a message to Unit 450 without destabilizing it.
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