Updated Monday, December 3, 2012 at 05:59 AM
WASHINGTON — The Syrian military's movement of chemical weapons in recent days has prompted the United States and several allies to repeat their warning to President Bashar Assad that he would be "held accountable" if his forces used the weapons against the rebels fighting his government.
What exactly the Syrian forces intend to do with the weapons remains murky, but one U.S. official provided the most specific description yet of what has been detected, saying that "the activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation," which goes beyond the mere movement of stockpiles among Syria's several dozen known sites.
Over the weekend, the activity in Syria prompted a series of emergency communications among the Western allies, who have long been developing contingency plans in case they decided to intervene in an effort to neutralize the chemical weapons, a task the Pentagon estimates would require upward of 75,000 troops. But there were no signs that preparations were about to begin.
So far, President Obama has been very cautious about intervening in Syria, but at a news conference in August, Obama said any evidence Assad was moving the weapons in a threatening way or making use of them is "a red line for us" that could prompt direct U.S. intervention.
A senior Israeli official said it was possible the movement of the chemical weapons — and the apparent preparations to use them — could be a bluff, intended as a warning to the West at a moment when NATO and the United States were debating greater support to opposition groups.
Several months ago, the U.S. military quietly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there to, among other things, prepare for the possibility that Syria would lose control of its chemical weapons.
Turkey has asked NATO for two batteries of the Patriot antimissile system, in part as protection against Syrian missiles that might come into Turkish territory. To make the case for the emplacements, the Turks have raised the possibilities that chemical weapons could be used in the warheads.