All eyes are on Syria as Western leaders continue to negotiate and threaten unspecified consequences if the erratic dictator holed up in Damascus decides to use the chemical weapons at his disposal
Outcomes range from terrible to worse as the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad considers using its stockpiles of advanced chemical weapons, such as dangerous VX or sarin nerve gases. U.S. officials told NBC News that the Assad regime had mixed and loaded nerve agents into aerial bombs. Assad may decide to attack his own citizens as opposition fighters surround the capital city or, on a larger scale, allow these weapons to slip into foreign, nefarious hands. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta continue their warnings against Syria crossing the "red line," but haven't yet stated what the consequences would be. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the U.N. peace envoy to Syria on Thursday, along with the foreign minister of Russia, a known supporter of the Assad regime. The meeting signals hope for cooperation between Russia and the West to end the conflict.
Syrians on the ground believe the U.S. has ignored their plight, and may not respond in time to stop a chemical attack
"The mindset of Assad now is that though he knows he is losing the battle, he is going to bring down Syria with him," says Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University. "He wants to teach lessons and break heads."
He believes a chemical attack, if ordered, could take place in a matter of hours.
"Since the battle of Damascus is on, it may be at any point that Assad may feel his regime may no longer survive. This is when the danger starts," says Jouejati, who previously served on the Syrian National Council and as an advisor to the European Commission delegation in Syria.
He may use these weapons on his own people, which the United States has openly condemned in recent days.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Sky News on Thursday, "We don't know if we have them or not."
"We have said at different times, on different occasions, that even if we have them, we will not use them against our people," he said, adding rumors that the regime is preparing for Assad's ouster are "laughable."
The tone of the fighting in Syria has changed drastically since it began in 2011. Opposition fighters began with simple rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. As they seize ground and take control of military installations, they are able to add heavy machine guns and shoulder-mounted missiles to their arsenal.
"Assad's forces in the rest of Syria are also under considerable pressure from rebel advances," Stratfor military analyst Omar Lamrani writes in a Thursday report. "It is clear that the regime is very much on the defensive and has been forced to gradually contract its lines toward a core that now encompasses Damascus, the Orontes River Valley and the mostly Alawite coast."
Assad has already proven he is willing to use brutally violent tactics on his own people. No one believed he would use his air force to attack Syrians as he has, including dropping cluster bombs, says Radwan Ziadeh, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institutes of Peace. He also sent arms to Hezbollah during its last engagement with Israel in 2006.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reaffirmed the U.S. stance on Thursday.
"The whole world is watching very closely and the president of the United States made it very clear that there will be consequences – there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake and uses chemical weapons on its own people," he said. It is possible Syria's chemical weapons may fall –either during the chaos or for safekeeping -- into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, an known ally of Assad, or the multiple militant groups from Iraq that operate amid the fighting in Syria, including the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate.