Syria says could use chemical arms against foreigners

BEIRUT Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:49pm EDT

1 of 11. A damaged tank is seen in the suburb of Erbeen in Damascus July 22, 2012. Logo at top right reads, 'Witness of the event'.

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Western states expressed alarm after Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries intervene.

A week of unprecedented fighting inside the capital Damascus, including a bomb attack that killed four of President Bashar al-Assad's closest advisers, has transformed the 16-month uprising and dramatically escalated international pressure on Assad.

Damascus residents said the capital was relatively quiet in the early hours of Tuesday after a day of fighting that saw government troops storm a neighborhood.

Defying Arab foreign ministers who on Sunday offered Assad a "safe exit" if he stepped down, the Syrian leader has launched fierce counter-offensives, reflecting his determination to keep power as the uprising enters its most violent phase.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels but could use them against forces from outside the country.

"Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used ... during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments," Makdissi said. "These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."

Damascus has not signed a 1992 international convention that bans the use, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, but officials in the past had denied it had any stockpiles. Washington and other Western capitals rushed to warn Syria against making any threats to use such weapons.

"Given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime's increasing attacks on their people, we remain very concerned about these weapons," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said warnings against using chemical weapons extended not only to the Syrian government but to rebels and any militants who might try to obtain them.

"The warnings that we have given with regard to safeguarding this kind of absolutely horrific and dangerous weapon have been made to regime, to opposition, to anybody who might get their hands on them," she said.

Britain, Germany and other countries also said it was unacceptable for Syria to say it might use chemical arms. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was very concerned Syria may be tempted to use unconventional weapons.

Western countries and Israel have expressed fears chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as Assad's authority erodes. Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Assad's Lebanese Shi'ite militant allies Hezbollah.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus, near Homs, in Hama and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia. Weapons it produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun, it said, without citing its sources.

Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said: "A regime that massacres children and rapes women could use these types of weapons.

"The technical infrastructure may not be suitable, but as I said, such a step could be expected from this murderous regime. The international community must prevent this," he told reporters after meeting Turkey's foreign minister in Ankara.

Arab League ministers meeting in Doha urged the opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army to form a transitional government, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference.

Makdissi rejected the call for Assad to step down as a "flagrant intervention" in Syria's internal affairs. "We regret that the Arab League stooped to this immoral level," he said.

On Monday the army shelled rebel forces in the northern city of Aleppo and stormed the southern Damascus neighborhood of Nahr Aisha, breaking into shops and houses and burning some of them, activists said.

Video showed dozens of men in green army fatigues massing in the neighborhood, which looked completely abandoned. Men carrying machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers knocked and then kicked down doors and climbed through windows.

Assad's forces have reasserted control over several Damascus areas since they seized back the central Midan district on Friday, 48 hours after a bomb attack killed four of Assad's closest security officials.

"The regime strategy is to continue to confront the opposition, this time with much broader military response," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group consultancy.

"The expectation that the regime is out of firepower or collapsing right now is misplaced."

But Assad's forces have lost ground outside cities, ceding control of four border posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

Sky Television footage from the town of Azaz close to the border with Turkey showed rebel fighters parading through streets firing triumphantly after a prolonged battle with government forces.

In Aleppo, activists said thousands of residents fled the rebel-held districts of Al-Haideriya, Hanano and Sakhour after army shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces in which activists said three government tanks were destroyed.

A video posted by activists showed families crammed into taxis, vans and the back of trucks trying to flee. Dozens of other families set out on foot, carrying plastic bags with their belongings.

"This is a large scale hit-and-run battle. The whole point is to bleed the regime dry. It is a very long fight, and it will be especially long in Aleppo," said a spokesman from the Islamist rebel group the Battalions for the Free Men of Syria.

DAMASCUS FIGHTING

The fighting in Damascus, Aleppo and the eastern city of Deir al-Zor has been some of the fiercest yet and showed Assad's determination to avenge last Wednesday's bomb attack, the most spectacular blow of the uprising.

Activists reported clashes on Monday in the Damascus districts of Qadam and Kafr Sousseh. Rebel sources say the guerrilla fighters in the capital may lack the supply lines to remain there for long and may have to make tactical withdrawals.

In the northeast district of Qaboun, where Assad's forces pushed fighters back in recent days, most streets were empty, said a resident reached by telephone who visited the area from another part of Damascus. A few people were returning to check on homes, some of which were destroyed.

"I came just to pick up some of my family's belongings, I am not returning for now," one woman told the visitor at her empty-looking four-storey building.

Groups of men were removing bodies from underneath the rubble of one building. "We have removed 25 bodies so far from this area, we are burying them quickly," one said.

An activist said 24 bodies had been found outside the capital in the Daraya district of the countryside on Monday, and said they appeared to be fighters who had been executed.

The accounts could not be verified independently; Syria restricts access by journalists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles reports from anti-Assad activists, said 1,261 people had been killed across Syria since last Sunday when fighting escalated in Damascus, making it by far the bloodiest week in an uprising activists say has claimed at least 18,000 lives.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Antakya; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff and Michael Roddy)

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Comments (55)
Fromkin wrote:
What happened to that Geneva agreement where Syrian political factions were supposed to form a government through mutual consent?

We are getting tired of rebels did this, government forces did that.

Rebels have no way of toppling the Syrian government. It’s time that those sending them to Syria asked them to lay down their weapons and start political negociations.

It’s time to let the Syrian people choose their leaders through elections without interfering and excluding anybody. Whoever wins,governs.

Jul 22, 2012 9:49pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
carlloeber wrote:
Help the Syrian freedom fighters you Coward President Obama .. I have been to Syrian myself and have never met a better people .. I am disgusted to watch the inaction of the White House ..

President Obama is to blame.. too much a coward to do anything during the re-election .. so he should agree with Romney to come together and make a joint announcement that they both agree that the US should take military action and lead with air power .. John McCain will give them guidance if the President can’t figure out what to do ..

President Obama should have acted to stop the murder more than 400 days ago .. by sending in drones for the dictator’s palaces in Damascus .. instead President Obama has descended into ignominious cowardice ..

Did the Kremlin wait to get UN approval when they went sent tanks into Georgia in 2008 ? Why is President Obama handcuffed by the Kremlin ? we can only say that it is because he does not want to save the Syrians .. he does not want to send in drones .. he does not want to risk re-election chances and thinks he can shirk his responsibility as leader of the free world ..

Who does President Obama and the West depend on the save the Syrian children ? The same man who the US depended to save the Rwandan and Bosnian children ..

Syrian authorities are systematically detaining and torturing children, the United Nations’ human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has told the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-175411…

President Obama has allowed this to happen .. he has given free rein to the dictators in Damascus and abandoned the Syrian people .. he said the right things when he lead the charge against Qaddafi .. but has let his re-election rule his moral sense on Syria ..

It is disgraceful cowardice unbecoming of the leader of the home of the brave .. He could have shot back at the Damascus dictators 487 days ago when they started shooting innocent protesters .. He could have sent cruise missiles and drones to attack the palace of the dictator and his tanks and artillery .. He and the other leaders of the West meekly bow to the Kremlin and Chinese dictators .. instead they only strain their intelligence coming up with new words to say how horrible are the Syrian dictators’ atrocities ..

March 28, 2011, President Obama said .. “when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians.” www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2011/03/28/president-obama-s-speech-libya

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” (Except in an election year?)

“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different,” (Except in an election year?)

2011: “And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” 2012: Coward

Jul 22, 2012 9:51pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
neahkahnie wrote:
In a Reuters video report on this same site today, a report from a Turkish refugee camp that there was ethnic violence between Syrian refugees, probably Sunnis and Arabs, but not mentioned, who didn’t want to share the camp with refugees who were of the Turkman ethnic group. Is this a sign of the future after Assad? Think about that and what people wish for in Syria.

Jul 22, 2012 11:13pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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