Panetta: We’ve Lost Track of Some Syrian Chemical Weapons

The U.S. has lost track of some of Syria’s chemical weapons, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday, and does not know if any potentially lethal chemicals have fallen into the hands of Syrian rebels or Iranian forces inside the country.

“There has been intelligence that there have been some moves that have taken place. Where exactly that’s taken place, we don’t know.” Panetta said, in a Pentagon press briefing.

Panetta said that the “main sites” in Syria storing chemical weapons with which the Pentagon is most concerned remain secured by the Syrian military. But there is “some intelligence” that “limited” movements of weapons from other sites have occurred, he said, “for the Syrians to better secure what they – the chemicals.”

Panetta's statement follows reporting that Syrian rebels claim to have taken control of a military base that contains chemical weapons.

“But with regards to the movement of some of this and whether or not they’ve been able to locate some of it,” he said of U.S. intelligence, “we just don’t know.”

Following the briefing, Pentagon officials sought to clarify the extent of their grasp on the status of Syria's stockpiles. "We've never had perfect visibility into the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile, but we have excellent information that accounts for most of it," said a senior defense offiical, speaking on background. "We've seen it move, and we've been able to make an assessment as to why it's been moved.  This is a highly distributed network of chemical weapons sites, and we have a good grasp of what's going on inside that network."

Syria’s chemical weapons are top concern for the U.S. and for regional allies worried that they could let be stolen by rebels or terrorists organizations, or given to Iran for safekeeping. Another fear is that President Bashar al-Assad also could use them against neighboring countries, including Israel, to defense against potential outside military intervention by NATO, the U.S., or other powers. Panetta's comments come as rebels say they've begun a major battle for Aleppo "on all fronts."

“I don’t have any specific information about the opposition and whether or not they’ve obtained some of this, or how much they’ve obtained and just exactly what has taken place,” Panetta said.

“As to the movement of some of these materials and whether or not they’ve been exposed to possession by the opposition or others,” he added, “that’s something I really don’t have any firm information to confirm that that’s taken place.”

DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett