TODAY   |  December 07, 2012

Syria on alert over chemical weapons threat

Rebels say they have momentum capturing heavy weapons from the Syrian army and are closing in on Damascus, but the entire region is still bracing  for what could be a very violent end to one of the Middle East's most entrenched regimes. NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

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>>> the mounting crisis in syria . nato now says it will send troops, including american troops, to the turkish border with syria as fear grows over the regime's potential use of chemical weapons . nbc news chief foreign correspondent richard angel is in istanbul, turkey this morning. rich, good morning to you.

>> reporter: good morning. the concern certainly is centered around the chemical weapons . according to u.s. intelligence officials, syria has the most advanced chemical weapon program in the developing world , and u.s. officials have warned against unspecified consequences should syria attempt to use them. syrian rebels say they have momentum, capturing heavy weapons from the syrian army , shooting down syrian aircraft with increasing ease and frequency and closing in on damascus. in aleppo today shortages of fuel and bread. could the regime be breaking?

>> events on the ground in syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways. the pressure against the regime in and around damascus seems to be increasing.

>> reporter: but then what? there are fears syria could, in desperation, use chemical weapons against the opposition.

>> the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons . the whole world is watching, and the president of the united states has made very clear that there will be consequences.

>> reporter: defense officials told nbc news syria has loaded pre-cursor elements of sarin nerve gas into bombs but not put the bombs on to planes or other delivery systems. that, officials say, would be an imminent threat to the syrian people and intolerable to syria 's neighbors, worried chemical gas could spill over their borders. nato has already approved deploying patriot missiles to turkey designed to destroy incoming rockets or aircraft. syria says using chemical weapons would be suicide and accuse washington of exaggerating the threat. the deputy foreign minister said he worries the u.s. could even give the weapons to terrorists in syria as a pretext to invade. among rebel fighters chemical weapons are a constant fear, and we found evidence that at least some syrian front line units have been issued gas masks for months. these were discovered after rebels took over a checkpoint in the northeast late last summer. it's unclear why they had them. but now the entire region is bracing for what could be a very violent end to one of the middle east 's most entrenched regimes. the united states and russia, which have not seen eye to eye on the syrian crisis, are now reportedly working more closely together to defuse the situation. savannah?

>> richard angel in turk they