The Syrian government on Monday said it would only use its arsenal of chemical and biological materials against foreign aggressors and not on opposition forces that have been made notable gains in recent weeks in their 17-month uprising against the long-ruling Assad regime, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, July 20).
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in remarks carried by a regime-controlled broadcaster.
Makdissi's comments marked the seeming initial instance in which Damascus has admitted to possessing chemical and biological weapons though Syria's possession of chemical arms has been widely understood for years. Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the manufacturing, stockpiling or use of substances such as mustard gas and nerve agent. The nation, though, is a signatory of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical arms.
Syria is said to possess hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents that can be paired with ballistic missiles, air-dropped munitions and artillery rounds. Much less is known about the regime's biological weapons capabilities.
"All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression," Makdissi asserted.
Damascus subsequently updated the comments delivered by Makdissi to say "if any" in relation to potential chemical and biological weapons, AP reported. That appeared to be an effort to walk back from an overt claim of possession of such armaments (Hubbard/Schemm, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, July 23).
Nonetheless, the original statement drew a quick response from the United Kingdom and the United States.
"This is typical of the complete illusion of this regime, that they are the victims of external aggression," Reuters quoted British Foreign Secretary William Hague as saying. "What is actually happening is their own people are rising up against a brutal police state ... and in any case it is unacceptable to say that they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances" (Adrian Croft, Reuters I, July 23).
Added U.S. Defense Department spokesman George Little: “When chemical weapons are mentioned in the press by Syrian officials, that raises concerns. And we just want to make it known that we would strongly object, to put it mildly, to any thinking that would generate a motivation on the part of the Syrian regime to employ these weapons" (U.S. Defense Department release, July 23).
The status of the Assad government's unconventional weapons has become an increasing concern for Washington and other world capitals as fighting has escalated in Syria. In recent weeks it was reported that some chemical materials were removed from storage, raising fears they might be used in an attack. U.S. officials in recent days have repeatedly said that President Bashar Assad's government would be "held accountable" for the security of its chemical arsenal.
Israel has voiced worries that an abrupt collapse of the Assad regime could create an opening for nonstate actors to acquire weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the small Middle Eastern country. Tel Aviv has not disavowed the possibility it might pre-emptively move to attack Syrian chemical weapon sites to keep such an event from occurring.
A high-ranking unidentified U.S.intelligence official told AP that Assad forces had relocated chemical warfare substances away from the northern part of the nation, where violence has been strongest. The move is understood to have been conducted in order to better protect and reduce the dispersal of the weapons and is viewed by the United States as a sensible action, the source indicated.
Still, the recent detected uptick of movement at the Syrian chemical facilities has caused U.S. intelligence agencies to increase their surveillance of the armaments in an effort to ascertain whether any chemical attacks are being prepared for use in an assault, the U.S. official said (Hubbard/Schemm, Associated Press I).
However, a high-ranking former Syrian military officer told Reuters that relocation of some chemical stockpile components meant the weapons were being prepared for employment.
"The regime has started moving its chemical stockpile and redistributing it to prepare for its use," said Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, who recently broke from the Assad regime and based the assertion on information gathered by opposition forces in the past few days.
Sheikh indicated the weapons might be employed as a response to the bombing last week that killed Syria's defense minister and three other senior officials.
"They are moving it from warehouses to new locations," he said in an interview with Reuters in Turkey. "They want to burn the country. The regime cannot fall without perpetrating a sea of blood." The general's comments could not be confirmed by independent sources and Damascus insists it is not readying chemical arms for attack.
Last week, Israeli and Western sources said they could not determine whether the chemical munitions were being shifted to better protect them or to prepare them for usage (Suleiman al-Khalidi, Reuters II, July 21).
The official Syrian armed resistance is forming an elite force of troops who would seize and protect the nation's chemical arms facilities, Free Syrian Army Gen. Adnan Silou was quoted by the London Daily Telegraph as saying.
"We have a group just to deal with chemical weapons. They are already trained to secure sites," Silou said.
The general through 2008 was assigned to create Assad regime contingency plans for responding to the possibility of the government losing control of some of its weapons. He educated military forces in methods for protecting chemical arms.
"We trained them in securing stores, in reconnaissance of possible threats, in how to purge supplies and in treatment should Syria come under a chemical or biological attack," Silou said.
"There were two main stores -- warehouse 417 in east Damascus and number 419 in the Homs area. We had 1,500 soldiers and two or three generals stationed at each base," he continued.
The general said he is concerned that a cornered Assad could yet choose to mount a chemical attack to stave off regime collapse. "I know Bashar al-Assad's character. It is very possible that he will use the chemical weapons against his own people."
The regime could shoot off chemical weapons "from tanks, from rockets, and from helicopters," he said (Ruth Sherlock, London Daily Telegraph, July 20).
Israel on Friday said military involvement in Syria is an option if necessary to make certain the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah does not acquire chemical arms. Directives have been handed out to ready for a potential pre-emptive assault, the Xinhua News Agency quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as saying.
"Syria has advanced antiaircraft missiles, surface-to-surface missiles and elements of chemical weapons," Barak said in an interview with Israeli Channel 2 TV. "I directed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a situation where we will need to consider the possibility of an attack" (Xinhua News Agency, July 23).
"Right now, they (the Syrian regime) are maintaining control of these arsenals as best they can," AP quoted Israeli Defense Ministry policy official Amos Gilad as saying on Sunday (Amy Teibel, Associated Press II/Yahoo!News, July 22).
The White House on Saturday said the U.S. government is keeping close track of Syria's chemical arsenal and that surrounding nations were being consulted on the importance of keeping the weapons under tight control, Reuters reported.
"We are actively consulting with Syria's neighbors -- and our friends in the international community -- to underscore our common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government's obligation to secure them," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"We believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control," Vietor said. "Given the escalation of violence in Syria and the regime's increasing attacks on their people, we remain very concerned about these weapons" (Matt Spetalnick, Reuters III, July 21).
White House spokesman James Carney said there are a number of options for holding the Assad regime accountable for any loss of control or usage of its chemical weapons, Agence France-Presse reported. "There are a variety of ways that a government or individuals can be held accountable for this kind of behavior that would result in the deliberate release of chemical weapons or use of chemical weapons."
The senior Obama official, however, declined to offer specifics. "I wouldn't want to speculate about what particular measures would be taken" (Agence France-Presse/Times of India, July 23).
On Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) played down the possibility that Assad would order chemical strikes, as claimed by a recently defected ex-senior Syrian diplomat.
"Everybody says everybody's going to do something over there," the Massachusetts senator told The Hill. "I think we have to make our own judgments. I think we have to look at it very carefully. The good thing is we have the capabilities to watch very closely what's going on."
"Nobody knows what the rationale may be for moving [any chemical weapons] yet. There are a number of possibilities -- some bad, some good. ...You've got to figure them out," Kerry said (Julian Pecquet, The Hill, July 21).
The Syrian government on Monday said it would only use its arsenal of chemical and biological materials against foreign aggressors and not on opposition forces that have been made notable gains in recent weeks in their 17-month uprising against the long-ruling Assad regime, the Associated Press reported.