Jeffrey White, a defense expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that in addition to air-delivered weapons, the Syrian military can put chemical warheads on missiles like the Soviet-designed Scud, as well as artillery shells and short-range rockets and fire them into populated areas.
‘‘Without intelligence warnings from external sources, rebel combatants and civilians would be highly vulnerable to surprise chemical attacks, increasing the chances for major casualties,’’ White wrote in policy paper this week. In his view, Washington should be prepared for the ‘‘growing possibility’’ of chemical attacks in Syria.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the U.S. is concerned that ‘‘as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons.’’
Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht says Assad and his minority Alawite tribe view the fight against the rebels as a ‘‘war to the death.’’ Thus, ‘‘it’s not at all inconceivable that he would use’’ his chemical arms, he said.
‘‘There is no telling what a mad dog will do when it’s cornered,’’ said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence Committee. He added he still finds it hard to believe Assad would take that step.
Some experts believe a more likely scenario is that groups with terrorist ties who are helping the rebels might acquire some of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction.
‘‘I think the big problem is when and if Assad loses control of his weapons and sites,’’ said David Friedman, a former head of the Israeli military’s chemical-biological protection division. ‘‘Then, of course, weapons might fall into opposition hands and they might use it. This is a real danger and threat.’’
Quinlivan said Syrian Scud missiles carrying chemical warheads have a range of about 160 miles. That’s just beyond the distance from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to Tel Aviv.
If Syria used chemical weapons, it would be violating international law — specifically, the 1925 Geneva Protocol that bans the use of chemical and biological weapons. But because it is not a signatory to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria has reserved its right to produce and store chemical weapons. The only other countries that have not ratified that convention are Egypt, Israel, Angola, South Sudan, Somalia and Burma.
The chief of the organization in charge of implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, Ahmet Uzumcu of Turkey, said Friday he wrote to Syrian authorities urging them to join the treaty as a way of assuring the world that Syria accepts that the use of such weapons is ‘‘completely contrary to global sentiment.’’
Earlier this week, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in a TV interview that Syria would not use chemical weapons against its own people.
‘‘We cannot possibly commit suicide,’’ he said. ‘‘Syria is a responsible country.’’
Associated Press writer Lauren E. Bohn in Jerusalem, and researcher Monika Mathur and AP writers Bradley Klapper and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.