U.S. warns Syria, but can the Pentagon stop chemical weapons?

The Obama administration on Thursday once again warned Syria it would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, amid reports that Bashiral-Assad’s forces have begun mixing sarin gas that could be used in conventional shells.

But the U.S. military may have few realistic options to strike and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, if Washington deems that a necessary step, without potentially causing major health concerns to those weapons sites and their surrounding populations.

The administration has long said it does not want the military to intervene in Syria’s civil war, even as casualties from the use of conventional weapons have topped 40,000 people, by some estimates. But officials say the threat of chemical weapons opens up both a reason, and for some, legal permission, for outside military forces to strike.

“There is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned, that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on Thursday. “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching very closely and the president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences -- there will be consequences -- if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people.”

“It's fair enough to say their use of those weapons would cross a red line for us,” Panetta said.  “The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered.”

The White House feels it has plenty of justification to strike. “I think the bottom line is that the international community has spelled out a specific set of rules and norms outlawing the use of chemical or biological weapons,” said Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman. “The death to civilians is indiscriminate and the human suffering they inflict is horrific. The last leader to do so was Saddam Hussein, clearly a pariah in the international community.”

One expert points out that the fact that chemical weapons already have a pariah status in the international community would make it easier to justify military intervention in Syria to both the public and foreign governments.

“These weapons are so outlawed, they’re so disfavored, they’re so abhorred by the international community that they resonate in a different way than explosives,” said Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute for International Studies. “There’s a political difference and it has to do with global treaties that prohibit their use and their production, to which Syria is not a party.”

“I think [U.S. President Barack Obama] needed more justification to step forward and I think the chemical weapons would do it,” said Spector. “The images of Halabja [the Iraqi Kurdish town that Saddam Hussein’s military massacred with chemical weapons in 1988] . . . there are some very, very horrifying things about these weapons.”