WASHINGTON – The United States doesn’t know whether the nightmare scenario of Syrian chemical weapons on the loose in the midst of a chaotic civil war is becoming reality.

The Syrian regime appears to have been moving some of its stockpiled chemical weapons around the country in an effort to keep them safe, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta revealed Friday at the Pentagon.

“There has been some intelligence with regards to some of these sites that there has been some movement in order for the Syrians to better secure … the chemicals,” he said.

The U.S. government also doesn’t know whether some of the weapons have fallen into the hands of Syrian rebels or other groups. But Panetta said he was confident that all the major chemical weapons depots -- which the United States is cooperating with countries in the region to monitor -- remain under Syrian government control.

The United States lacks sufficient intelligence from inside Syria to know whether Syrian rebel claims to have captured chemical capabilities are true, he said. U.S. intelligence officials have said some of the groups waging a struggle against the government of president Bashir al-Assad have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda.

Other fears about the weapons include alleged regime plans to transfer the weapons to Hezbollah for potential use against Israel, or to Iranian forces.

“We just don’t know,” Panetta admitted about the fate of some of the weapons.

Syria is believed to possess large quantities of mustard gas, a corrosive agent used in World War I, and sarin, a far more deadly nerve agent. Throughout the growing conflict, the United States has sternly warned the regime it was responsible for securing its chemical arms.

Middle Eastern security issues dominated Friday’s press conference, at which Panetta appeared with visiting Canadian Minister of National Defense Peter MacKay.

Both affirmed their determination not to let Iran develop nuclear weapons, but said they hoped for a peaceful solution rather than military action, which U.S. ally Israel has said it could be forced into if Iran continues on its current path.

MacKay said Ottawa had recently closed its embassy in Iran not only to protect its diplomats but also to send a message to the country. There is little sign Iran is getting the message.

“There have been a number of red lines placed already, and Iran has edged closer and stepped over those red lines on a number of occasions now,” MacKay said.

Carrollc@stripes.comTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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