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Secretary of Defense calls situation ‘100 times worse’ than Libya

(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) today continued her push to ensure that Syria’s extensive weapons stockpiles do not fall into the wrong hands if President Assad’s regime collapses.  At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Shaheen questioned Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the security of Syria’s chemical weapons and portable anti-aircraft missiles.  Shaheen also asked Panetta to compare the situation in Syria to that in Libya, where thousands of such missiles remain unaccounted for since the fall of Moammar Qaddhafi.

Experts estimate that Syria has one of the largest chemical weapons programs in the world and senior U.S. officials have previously described a “nightmare scenario” if they fall into the wrong hands.  Shaheen spoke to General James Mattis, who oversees U.S. military operations in Syria as head of U.S. Central Command, about the safety of Syria’s weapons at an Armed Services hearing yesterday.

“I had a chance to ask General Mattis about this yesterday, about what concerns we have should Assad fall, about the security of those arsenals and what potential threat to the rest of the region they might present.  Can you address that?” Shaheen asked Panetta at the hearing today.  “Can you compare it to the situation that we found in Libya last year?”

“There's no question that [Syria has] huge stockpiles and that if it got into the wrong hands it would really be a threat to the security, not only of the regional countries, but to the United States,” Panetta said.  “It’s 100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya and that's why it's raised even greater concerns about our ability to address how we can secure those [weapons] sites.”

In February, Shaheen joined fellow Senate Armed Services Committee members Susan Collins (R-ME) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a letter to Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging them to ensure that planning is underway to make certain that Syria’s weapons do not fall into the wrong hands if the Assad regime falls.