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Syria holds out threat of chemical weapons against 'exterior aggression'

The embattled Assad regime pledges not to use chemical weapons against Syrian civilians 'no matter how the crisis evolves,' but leaves the option open against foreign powers who intervene in Syria.

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This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on July 22 purports to show Syrians chanting slogans during a demonstration in the northern town of Sarmada, in Idlib province, Syria. (The Associated Press is unable to independently verify the authenticity, content, location, or date of this citizen journalist image.)

Shaam News Network SNN/AP

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The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a part-reassuring, part-worrisome answer Monday to growing international concerns about the country’s substantial stockpile of chemical weapons.

No, a regime spokesman said, we will not use chemical weapons against other Syrians in the ongoing conflict. But foreign powers should know, the spokesman went on to say, that Syria might resort to these weapons to stop foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs.

Coming less than a month after the Syrian military shot down a Turkish fighter jet that it said strayed into its airspace, the chilling warning was clearly intended to be taken seriously. The regime’s suggestion that it might use the weapons seems certain to intensify discussions among world powers, including the United States and Israel, of how to address the chemical-weapons issue.

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

As if in response to the mounting international concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi read a statement in Damascus Monday in which he said that the weapons “will not be used against Syrian civilians,” insisting that “they will never be used domestically no matter how the crisis evolves.”

But then he added, “Those weapons will only be used in the case of exterior aggression.”

The Foreign Ministry statement appeared to be Syria’s first official acknowledgment that it possesses chemical and biological weapons – although the government subsequently attempted to return to its traditional ambiguity on the question by inserting “if any” after the reference to chemical weapons in Mr. Makdissi’s statement.

The US has long affirmed that Syria holds major stockpiles of mustard gas and other chemical and biological weapons. Last week US officials disclosed that intelligence suggested the Syrian government was moving its stockpiles out of areas of heaviest fighting – a move that US officials saw as both positive and negative.

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