CRS: DOD Estimates ‘Over 75,000 Troops’ Needed to Secure Syria’s Chem Weapons

Terence P. Jeffrey | September 4, 2013 | 2:13pm EDT
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President Barack Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

( - The Congressional Research Service (CRS) said in a report released on August 20 that the Pentagon has estimated it would take “over 75,000 troops” to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, the draft text of the resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to use force in Syria that is being taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today prohibits the president from putting ground troops in Syria "for the purpose of combat operations"--but appears to leave open the possiblity that the president could put troops in Syria to secure chemical weapons.

"The authority granted in section 2 does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations," says the text of the draft resolution.

However, Section 2 of the resolution gives the president the authority to use the Armed Forces in Syria "as he determines necessary and appropriate" for a limited set of purposes, including "to protect our allies and partners against the use of" weapons of mass destruction.

The CRS report saying that the Pentagon had estimated it would take "over 75,000 troops" to secure Syria's chemical weapons was issued just one day before an August 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. According to an assessment released by the U.S. government, that attack killed 1,429 people. Ten days after the attack--and eleven days after the CRS released its report--President Obama announced his intention to use military force to penalize the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad for perpetrating the attack.

“U.S. officials have expressed confidence that chemical weapons stocks in Syria are secured by the Asad regime, which dispatched elite Special Forces for that purpose,” said the CRS report--“Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress.”

But the report also said the U.S. government has been making contingency plans to make sure the Asad regime’s chemical weapons did not fall into the hands of terrorists “in the event of the regime’s loss of control.” In this context, the CRS said the Pentagon had estimated it would take “over 75,000 troops” to neutralize the weapons

“Due to the urgency of preventing access to these weapons by unauthorized groups, including terrorists, the United States government has been preparing for scenarios to secure the weapons in the event of the Asad regime’s loss of control,” said the CRS report.

“However, this presents unique challenges,” said the CRS report. “In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, ‘It’s 100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya. And for that reason, that’s why it’s raised even greater concerns about our ability to address how we can secure those sites.’ The Pentagon has estimated that it would take over 75,000 troops to neutralize the chemical weapons.”

To back up the assertion that it would take “over 75,000 troops” to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons, the CRS report footnoted a Feb. 22, 2012 report by CNN.

“The U.S. military has calculated it could take more than 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria's chemical warfare facilities if they were at risk of being looted or left unguarded, CNN has learned,” said CNN’s Barbara Starr in that report. “The conclusion comes from a military analysis of options for Syria that the Department of Defense is preparing for president should he request it, according to a senior U.S. official. … The analysis was provided by the United States' Central Command, which has been considering how the U.S. military would handle potential scenarios should U.S. troops be called in, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the situation.”

On Nov. 15, 2012, nine months after the CNN report, reporters David Sanger and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times revealed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Central Command had informed the White House that it would “require upward of 75,000 troops” to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. The Times also reported that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group aligned with the Asad regime, had set up camps near Syria’s chemical weapons sites.

“The Pentagon has told the Obama administration that any military effort to seize Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops, amid increasing concern that the militant group Hezbollah has set up small training camps close to some of the chemical weapons depots, according to senior American officials,” wrote Sanger and Schmitt.

“The estimated size of the potential effort, provided to the White House by the military’s Central Command and Joint Staff, called into question whether the United States would have the resources to act quickly if it detected the movement of chemical weapons and forced President Obama, as he said in August, to ‘change my calculus’ about inserting American forces into Syria,” said Sanger and Schmitt. “So far Mr. Obama has avoided direct intervention into the most brutal civil conflict to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings, and the Pentagon assessment was seen as likely to reinforce that reluctance.”

A report that the Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Parliament published in July said that the British intelligence community had assessed that al Qaeda and jihadists in Syria was “the most worrying emerging terrorist threat” to the West, and that in the event the Asad regime fell there was a real risk terrorists could gain access to its chemical weapons with “catastrophic consequences.”

The report also said that extremist elements in Syria could plan attacks “against Western targets.”

“The [British intelligence] Agencies and JTAC [Joint Terrorism Analysis Center] assess that Al-Qaeda elements and individual jihadists in Syria currently represent the most worrying emerging terrorist threat to the UK and the West,” said the British report.

“There is a risk of extremist elements in Syria taking advantage of the permissive environment to develop external attack plans, including against Western targets,” the report continued.

“Large numbers of radicalized individuals have been attracted to the country, including significant numbers from the UK and Europe,” the report said. “They are likely to acquire expertise and experience which could significantly increase the threat posed when they return home. Furthermore, there is growing concern about the risks around extremist groups in Syria gaining access to regime stocks of chemical weapons.”

“The security of these chemical weapons stocks is also of serious concern,” said this report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Parliament. “The Chief of SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] noted the risk of ‘a highly worrying proliferation around the time of regime fall.’ There  has to significant risk that some of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hand of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region—is the happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

In a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez asked Secretary of State John Kerry if the administration would accept language in a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria that prohibited putting “boots on the ground.”

“It would be preferable not to [have a prohibition of boots on the ground],” said Kerry.

“In the event that Syria imploded, for instance,” said Kerry, “or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hand of al Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies, and all of us--the British, the French and others--to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements. I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the United States to secure our country."

The State Department has listed the al Nusra Front—one of the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime--as an al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group.

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