By Barbara Starr
The U.S. military has calculated it could take more than 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria's chemical warfare facilities if they were at risk of being looted or left unguarded, CNN has learned.
The conclusion comes from a military analysis of options for Syria that the Department of Defense is preparing for president should he request it, according to a senior U.S. official.
Securing Syria's chemical sites would be "extraordinarily difficult" given the scope of the problem, a Department of Defense official told CNN.Both officials would only speak on the condition their names not be used because they were talking about military planning.
The U.S. military believes there are 50 chemical weapon and production sites spread across the country with additional storage sites and research centers as well. The cities of Hama, Homs and al Safira, and the port city of Latakia are all believed to house production facilities.
The analysis was provided by the United States' Central Command, which has been considering how the U.S. military would handle potential scenarios should U.S. troops be called in, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the situation.
While the number is large - nearly as many as are currently serving in Afghanistan - any actual deployment should it ever come to that would undoubtedly be significantly smaller than the planning suggested. U.S. officials continue to insist the American position is to push for a diplomatic solution.
"In terms of a military action to secure a part of the country, that is not currently a policy we are pursuing," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday.
The U.S. intelligence community currently believes Syria's weapons sites are secured by the regime, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress last week. But the senior U.S. official who spoke to CNN said the "nightmare scenario" is what would happen if that situation changes and the regime suddenly fall apart, or the fighting gets to the point that the international community believes military intervention is necessary to secure the chemical weapons.
In that type of conflict scenario - in which American or other countries' troops would be entering a hostile environment - air power would also have to be used to destroy Syria's air defenses, which are considered to be capable, the official said. That portion of any campaign could take weeks.
A defense official told CNN's Chris Lawrence last week that while the U.S. "continues to monitor the overall situation in Syria," there are "ongoing discussions specific to the location of, and security around, the various components of their chemical weapons program."
"Syria probably has one of largest programs in the world," said Leonard Specter with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "It has multiple types of chemical agents." Specter said the stocks include World War I-era gases like chlorine and phosgene as well as more modern nerve gases.
The United States is paying particular attention to the possibility of the weapons falling into the hands of extremists, in the event the government loses control of certain areas or splinters among itself, the defense official said.
"There would be kind of a vacuum that would lend itself to extremists operating in Syria which is particularly troublesome in light of the large network of chemical warfare, (chemcial biological weapons), weapon-storage facilities and other related facilities that there are in Syria," Clapper said.
The senior U.S. official said American military commanders are continuing to strongly advocate for a political and diplomatic option in Syria rather than a military one. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Clapper have already voiced concerns publicly about arming opposition groups who are not well known to the United States.
But the official also notes the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad itself still has military cards to play. So far the regime has not used its chemical or biological capability or any military aviation units against protestors. If Syrian attack helicopters were called in, he said, "that would be very significant."
"They haven't demonstrated any interest or any intent to use those," Demspey said in an interview that aired this weekend on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."