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Obama Threatens "Enormous Consequences" For Syrian Chemical Arms Use

President Obama, speaking at the White House on Monday, said Syria would face "enormous consequences" for trying to use biological or chemical weapons (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais). President Obama, speaking at the White House on Monday, said Syria would face "enormous consequences" for trying to use biological or chemical weapons (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

U.S. President Obama on Monday warned Syrian President Bashar Assad there would be "enormous consequences" should his regime ready a biological or chemical weapons attack as a means of staying in power, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The remarks by the U.S. president to reporters represented the most clear suggestion to date that the United States would not sit on the sidelines should the Syrian government employ weapons of mass destruction to suppress an 18-month-long rebellion.

Syria is understood to hold hundreds of tons of mustard and blister agents that could be delivered by ballistic missiles, rockets and other weapons. Damascus is also suspected of operating a biological weapons program. Last month, the regime said it would only use its chemical weapons on foreign aggressors though it subsequently attempted to deny  it had admitted possessing weapons of mass destruction.

"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moved around or being utilized," Obama said. "That would change my calculations significantly."

The strength of Obama's warning shows just how concerned the United States is that Assad or his military might decide to mount a chemical attack in a last-ditch effort to stave off regime collapse as opposition fighters capture new territory and senior officials abandon the regime.

The United States and friendly nations in the region including Jordan and Turkey in recent weeks have deepened their coordination on developing emergency response plans to handle a Syrian chemical weapons crisis, officials said.

While other senior Obama officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said Syrian chemical strikes would cross a "red line," the president until Monday had not explicitly used that same wording.

Obama acknowledged there are no present signs that a chemical strike is being readied in Syria, but he said that might not always be the case. "We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," the president said.

Aside from fears of a chemical weapons strike, the United States, Israel and other regional players are concerned that continued fighting in Syria could weaken regime security around the WMD stockpiles, creating an opening for nonstate actors such as Hezbollah and al-Qaida to acquire unconventional weapons.

A high-ranking Obama official said the president's remarks were intended as a "deterrent" against any regime scheme to supply chemical arms to extremist organizations or employ them in attacks.

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil on Tuesday said a Western military incursion into his country could "see the crisis expand beyond Syria's borders," the Associated Press reported. "We must say that such intervention is impossible," he went on in an evident reminder that Damscus holds weapons of mass destruction that can be used in regional attacks or fired at foreign invaders.
 
The deputy prime minister accused Obama of making "propagandistic threats" in order to encourage his chances of winning reelection in November.

Obama on Monday renewed U.S. demands for Assad to give up power, though he acknowledged there is little chance of that happening, according to a separate Associated Press report.

"So far he hasn’t gotten the message, and instead has doubled down in violence on his own people, The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into civil war, he should move in the direction of a political transition. But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant," the president said.

Obama's remarks do not mean the United States is interested in militarily intervening in Syria, an anonymous administration official told the Washington Post on Monday.

"There's a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force," the Obama official said.

Just a few European countries and the United States possess the technical capacity to deal with Syria's chemical stocks, Obama officials and issue specialists have said. Elite foreign chemical response units deployed into the Arab country would need a substantial accompanying force to guard them as they worked, according to the New York Times.

Under a nightmare scenario following the collapse of the Assad government, a massive force of tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel would be needed to adequately secure all of the country's biological and chemical arsenals,  according to two unidentified high-ranking U.S. officials. They emphasized that contingency brainstorming is typical for the Pentagon and that there are no present plans to send U.S. troops to Syria.

"The problem is that the material is so dispersed," said an issue specialist who has advised the U.S. government. 

Though up-to-date information on the makeup and location of Syrian WMD stockpiles is hard to come by, U.S. intelligence activities suggest there might be up to 24 unconventional weapon-related installations in the nation.

Russia's top diplomat on Tuesday reminded the United States and its allies that his nation would not tolerate any Western military intervention of Syria that lacks international authorization, Reuters reported.

Following a conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow and Beijing were devoted to "the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law ... and not to allow their violation."

"I think this is the only correct path in today's conditions," Lavrov reportedly said to Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo.

China and Russia hold veto power on the U.N. Security Council and could use that authority to deny any Western effort to pass a resolution approving military intervention in Syria.

 Lavrov noted  that only the Security Council can approve a foreign military intervention and he cautioned against attempting to introduce "democracy by bombs" in Syria.

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NTI Analysis

  • Disarming Syria of Its Chemical Weapons: Lessons Learned from Iraq and Libya

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    This CNS issue brief examines the lessons learned from dismantling Libya and Iraq's chemical weapons programs and what these two cases presage for disarmament in Syria. In particular, this article explores the challenges relating to ensuring material and physical security for both inspectors and the chemical weapons stockpile itself; verifying the accuracy and completeness of disclosed inventories; and developing effective monitoring and verification regimes for the long-term. The conclusion examines recommendations stemming from this analysis.

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