US officials say Damascus is moving parts of its chemical weapons arsenal, an allegation denied by Syrian authorities. Some in Washington imply that the weapons may be used for “ethnic cleansing”.
Syria is believed to have a large arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide, which is undeclared due to the country not being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Wall Street Journal cites unnamed US officials as saying that parts of the arsenal are being relocated from their storage facilities.
The Syrian government denied the alleged move when asked for comments.
"This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue," said Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi. "If the US is so well-informed, why can't they help [UN envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?"
The White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.
But WSJ sources insist that it is happening, although they differ on the reasons for the claimed relocation. Some believe Damascus is doing it to secure from being taken over by the armed opposition. Others say it is a veiled threat against potential supporters of the rebels – both inside the country and abroad.
The most pessimistic say the Syrian military are preparing to use the chemical weapons against the rebels and civilians.
"The regime has a plan for ethnic cleansing, and we must come to terms with this," one US official said. "There is no diplomatic solution."
"This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch," another one said. "This is incredibly dangerous to our national security."
The source did not specify which of the many ethnic groups mixed in Syria the government may wish to attack with the highly indiscriminate weapons in a move which would doubtlessly provoke international condemnation.
The search for weapons of mass destruction was the main stated reason for the 2003 American occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The weapons which the dictator was allegedly prepared to use against Europe never materialized. The necessity to stop ethnic cleansings in Bosnia in the 1990s was one of the reasons why the US got involved in the war there.
The new intelligence may be used to bolster calls for international action to remove Assad, another official said, but also to underline the risks of intervening against a military armed with weapons of mass destruction.
The official did not say what threats the weapons could pose to military aircraft delivering air strikes against Syrian targets from their bases in other nations and aircraft carriers. The scenario for a possible intervention is most likely as evidenced by the bombing campaign in Libya.
Earlier some Israeli top brass said they would use force and secure Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles if they are at risk of falling into the hands of Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda. The US military also held joint drills with Jordanians, exploiting a scenario that involved taking over a Syrian chemical weapons storage facility.