Syria has begun moving parts of its vast arsenal of chemical weapons out of storage facilities, U.S. officials said, in a development that has alarmed many in Washington, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The country's undeclared stockpiles of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide have long worried U.S. officials and their allies in the region, who have watched anxiously amid the conflict in Syria for any change in the status or location of the weapons.
American officials are divided on the meaning of the latest moves by members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Some U.S. officials fear Damascus intends to use the weapons against the rebels or civilians, potentially as part of a targeted ethnic cleansing campaign. But other officials said Mr. Assad may be trying to safeguard the material from his opponents or to complicate Western powers' efforts to track the weapons.
Some said that Mr. Assad may not intend to use the weapons, but instead may be moving them as a feint, hoping the threat of a chemical attack could drive Sunnis thought to be sympathetic to the rebels from their homes.
Whatever the motivation, the evidence that the chemical weapons are coming into play could escalate the conflict in Syria, some fear. "This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch," one U.S. official said. "This is incredibly dangerous to our national security."
The Obama administration has begun to hold classified briefings about the new intelligence. U.S. officials are particularly worried about Syria's stocks of sarin gas, the deadly and versatile nerve agent. The officials wouldn't say where weapons have been moved.