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.
Shaam News Network SNN/AP
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a part-reassuring, part-worrisome answer Monday to growing international concerns about the country‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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.
As if in response to the mounting international concerns about Syria‚Äôs chemical weapons stockpile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi read a statement in Damascus Monday in which he said that the weapons ‚Äúwill not be used against Syrian civilians,‚ÄĚ insisting that ‚Äúthey will never be used domestically no matter how the crisis evolves.‚ÄĚ
But then he added, ‚ÄúThose weapons will only be used in the case of exterior aggression.‚ÄĚ
The Foreign Ministry statement appeared to be Syria‚Äôs first official acknowledgment that it possesses chemical and biological weapons ‚Äď although the government subsequently attempted to return to its traditional ambiguity on the question by inserting ‚Äúif any‚ÄĚ after the reference to chemical weapons in Mr. Makdissi‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď a move that US officials saw as both positive and negative.
Moving the weapons to safer areas suggests the regime takes their possession seriously, but at the same time the need to move them underscored the regime‚Äôs slipping hold on power.
American military and intelligence officials have expressed concerns about Syria‚Äôs considerable stockpile of chemical and biological weapons since last year ‚Äď and in particular over the threat that the weapons might go unprotected in an extended conflict and fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.
But concerns grew and indeed shifted last week to whether or not the regime might resort to using the weapons after a bombing that killed members of Mr. Assad‚Äôs inner circle suggested the regime is losing its grip on power.
Makdissi referred to the international focus on Syria‚Äôs weapons in the statement, drawing a comparison to Iraq and the US-led invasion in 2003 that was justified as a strike against Saddam Hussein‚Äôs supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) but which resulted in the ouster of Mr. Hussein. He said high-profile discussion ‚Äúaims to justify and prepare the international community‚Äôs military intervention in Syria under the false pretext of WMD.‚ÄĚ
Answering one set of concerns about Syria‚Äôs weapons, Makdissi said the country‚Äôs ‚Äúchemical or bacterial weapons" are ‚Äústored and secured by Syrian military forces.‚ÄĚ
But his warning about the possible consequences of foreign intervention was worrisome, because it left open the question of just what form or degree of foreign intervention might trigger the use of these weapons.
In the statement, for example, Makdissi condemned the Arab League‚Äôs weekend call on opposition forces to form a transitional government as a ‚Äúflagrant intervention‚ÄĚ in Syria‚Äôs internal affairs. ¬†