U.S. and allied intelligence agencies know where most of the Syrian regime's chemical and biological weapons are stored, according to current and former Obama administration officials, giving Western powers a better chance of monitoring them should President Bashar Assad be toppled from office and leave a power vacuum.
At the same time, American policymakers are being forced to consider worst-case scenarios in which Syria suffers a complete breakdown of authority, thereby becoming a lawless state marked by severe sectarian tension and moves to partition the country.
To forestall such scenarios, U.S. officials told Fox News that in their "intense and ongoing" contacts with Syrian opposition leaders, which continued overnight, they have been stressing to that respect for the rights of minorities -- including Alawites and Christians -- must be a hallmark of any post-Assad era. Still, Obama administration officials made clear that outside powers are not in a position to "dictate what comes next" in Syria and, equally important, cannot be perceived as attempting to do so.
As for the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that are the paramount current concern for the West, a senior administration official told Fox News "we monitor very closely their chemical weapons." A former Obama administration official who worked on Mideast issues agreed: "We have a pretty good fix on where most of them are."
Senior U.S. officials also confirmed to Fox News that the U.S. is in discussions with Israel about the possibility of Israel moving to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles -- though that possibility is just a matter of discussion and not an action plan at this point.
American diplomats are working through the Friends of Syria group and with allied nations like Israel, Turkey, France, and Great Britain to build a "network of support" for post-Assad Syria, such that the fledgling state, wracked by civil war and a badly damaged economy, can maintain basic governmental institutions and preserve some measure of centralized authority over various sects and provinces.
At a news briefing at the State Department, spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters the administration still does not know the whereabouts of Assad in the wake of an attack that killed several high-ranking regime officials. Asked if the airing on state-run television of footage purporting to show Assad swearing in his new defense minister, former Army chief of staff General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, did not help resolve the uncertainty over Assad's status and whereabouts, Ventrell said he could not comment further.
Fox News' Justin Fishel contributed to this report.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).