The U.S. said Friday that Syrian officials would be “held accountable” if they failed to safeguard the country’s chemical weapons after a report suggested some were being moved out of storage.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that intelligence reports suggested some chemical weapons were on the move, but the reasons for the transfers were unclear.
It said some U.S. officials feared the weapons could be used against rebels or civilians, while others believed the material was being deliberately hidden from armed opposition groups or Western powers.
“We have repeatedly made it clear that the Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons,” spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department Victoria Nuland told reporters, according to AFP.
“The international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fail to meet that obligation,” she added in a statement during a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cambodia.
The Wall Street Journal said the Obama administration was “particularly worried about Syria’s stocks of sarin gas, the deadly and versatile nerve agent.”
Syria is also believed to have reserves of mustard gas and cyanide.
“It’s very important that the Syrian regime maintains its control and security of these very dangerous weapons,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said, according to AFP.
“Our assessment remains what it’s been for some time, that the Syrian regime has control of its chemical weapons stockpiles. We’re watching very closely, not just the United States but the international community.”
The Syrian government denies carrying out the operation and there is no firm word on the materials involved.
But the reports contribute to an impression of crumbling government control in parts of Syria, and are likely to heighten international concern about the security of what is believed to be the Middle East’s largest chemical weapons stockpile, according to Reuters.
An Israeli official said however the movements reflected an attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to make “arrangements to ensure the weapons do not fall into irresponsible hands.”
“That would support the thinking that this matter has been managed responsibly so far.”
Western countries believe Damascus has the world’s largest remaining stockpile of undeclared chemical weapons -- including mustard gas and the deadly VX nerve agent. The arsenal could give Assad a means to project power domestically and in the region, and counterbalance Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons.
In London, the British Foreign Office (ministry) said Syria was a country “of proliferation concern” and had a track record of covert weapons programs.
From Israel’s point of view the biggest “red line” would be a transfer of such weaponry to the powerful Shiite political party and guerrilla group Hezbollah, a sworn foe.
More localized leakage within Syria would be less worrying as such weapons are not easy to operate in the absence of a military infrastructure, Israeli officials have said.
But Damascus worries that even the appearance that it no longer enjoys 100 percent control of the material could trigger military action by the West to secure the sites and prevent them from getting into the hands of Islamist militants, analysts say.
Assad’s focus on the possibility that Western forces may one day seek to capture his chemical weapons may have been sharpened by the holding of regular multinational military exercises involving U.S. forces in neighboring Jordan earlier this year.
Western media reports have said suspected sites are in half a dozen cities and towns including the capital Damascus, Latakia, Hama and near Aleppo.
A senior Free Syrian Army source said two weeks ago that Assad’s forces, with Iranian help, were moving chemical weapons out of the Tal Qartal military site, around 14 km (10 miles) southwest of Hama, Reuters reported.
The source said some were going to Damascus and being airlifted to Lebanon. There was no immediate confirmation of the report.
More than 17,000 people have been killed in violence since an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime broke out in March last year, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.