U.S. military prepares for potential chemical weapons in Syria

CBS News — July 19, 2013

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Syrians who’ve fled the two-year-old civil war. He visited a sprawling refugee camp in Jordan that holds 115,000 refugees. Some pleaded with Kerry for U.S. military intervention in the war between rebels and the dictatorship of Bashar Assad.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told a Senate panel Thursday that he has military options for Syria — should the president ever give the order. That order might come if Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles are in danger of falling into the wrong hands. U.S. troops are training for that, and we went along.

About 1,500 paratroopers dropped out of the night sky from an altitude of just 800 feet, bringing with them nearly 190,000 pounds of equipment. They were the first of some 4,000 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division parachuting into an exercise designed in part to prepare for the worst in Syria.

After seizing an airfield in the woods of North Carolina, they launched a helicopter assault on a compound where, for purposes of this exercise, chemical agents were believed to be stored. Their mission: get to the chemicals before they fall into the hands of terrorists who would use them against Americans.

Maj. Gen. John Nicholson is commander of the 82nd. “As we look at the evolving situation — Syria and other places around the world — we’re preparing to deal with the reality of securing chemical weapons,” he said.

In one exercise, they found one of the components for the deadly nerve agent VX.

So how do chemical weapons change the operation?

“Chemical weapons are not something we’ve encountered in the last ten years of counterinsurgency,” explained Nicholson. “So there’s many dimensions to the issue of securing chemical stockpiles that we’re working through right now.”

Nicholson acknowledges that chemical weapons make it a more dangerous situation. “We want to minimize the risk to our paratroopers … and then how do we deal with the potential hazards to the locals in that area, to the civilians,” he said.

The paratroopers would keep everybody else away until experts arrived to decontaminate the site and arrange for the disposal of the chemicals.

Asked if he has special units trained and equipped to handle chemical weapons, Nicholson replied: “We do in the United States Army and they’re out here training with us right now,” he said.

It’s been a decade since U.S. forces went into Iraq looking for chemical weapons. They didn’t find any, but the threat is back — this time in Syria. If U.S. forces are ever sent on another chemical weapons hunt, it will be the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne.

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