William Katz:  Urgent Agenda

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SYRIA NIGHTMARE – AT 9:24 A.M. ET:  With Syria coming apart there is substantial fear over the fate of the country's chemical weapons.  What if the government loses control over them?  The Washington Post reports that the U.S. has a plan.  I certainly hope so.

As Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power steadily weakens, U.S. officials are increasingly worried that Syria’s weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists, rogue generals or other uncontrollable factions.

Last week, fighters from a group that the Obama administration has branded a terrorist organization were among rebels who seized the Sheik Suleiman military base near Aleppo, where research on chemical weapons had been conducted. Rebels are also closing in on another base near Aleppo, known as Safirah, which has served as a major production center for such munitions, according to U.S. officials and analysts.

And...

A former Syrian general who once led the army’s chemical weapons training program said that the main storage sites for mustard gas and nerve agents are supposed to be guarded by thousands of Syrian troops but that they would be easily overrun.

The sites are not secure, retired Maj. Gen. Adnan Silou, who defected to the opposition in June, said in an interview near Turkey’s border with Syria. “Probably anyone from the Free Syrian Army or any Islamic extremist group could take them over,” he said.

Sleep well tonight.

The Pentagon has drawn up plans for responding to possible scenarios involving Syria’s chemical arms, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Friday during a visit to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border. He declined to give details.

Defense officials, however, said in interviews that they have been updating their contingency plans in recent weeks as chaos has overtaken Syria. They said they are working closely with Israel, Jordan and NATO allies, including Turkey, to monitor dozens of sites where Syria is suspected of keeping chemical arms and to coordinate options to intervene if necessary.

And...

“It’s safe to say it will take an international effort to secure the weapons,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. Shaheen said she was “confident” about the administration’s contingency planning but warned that the task was formidable.

Shaheen noted that Panetta has described the challenge of securing Syria’s chemical cache as “100 times worse” than was required to safeguard Libya’s arsenal of chemical and conventional weapons after Moammar Gaddafi was toppled last year by a NATO-backed rebellion.

COMMENT:  And that didn't go well at all.   Libyan weapons were loose all over the place, and we fear that weapons like shoulder-launched missiles have already found their way into the hands of terrorist groups.  Syria, as noted, is a much-worse case.

And what if our secretary of defense is the rumored Chuck Hagel, a man who seems emotionally incapable of doing anything for the first time. 

This could truly be the WMD nightmare that we feared in Iraq.  We never found the stockpiles of Iraqi WMD, but we found the programs in place and ready to be restarted.  As for the stockpiles, I'd hardly be surprised that some of them were sent to Syria for safekeeping, and that they're part of the arsenal we now fear.

December 17, 2012