NATO warns Syria not to use chemical weapons

BRUSSELS/BEIRUT Tue Dec 4, 2012 3:09pm EST

1 of 6. NATO foreign ministers meet at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels December 4, 2012. NATO foreign ministers will agree on Tuesday to send Patriot missiles to beef up Turkey's air defenses and calm Turkey's fears that it could come under missile attack, possibly with chemical weapons, from Syria, diplomats said.

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - NATO told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday that any use of chemical weapons in his fight against encroaching rebel forces would be met by an immediate international response.

The warning from NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came as U.S. government sources said Washington had information that Syria was making what could be seen as preparations to use its chemical arsenal.

Syrian forces meanwhile bombarded rebel districts near Damascus in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around Assad's power base as the insurgency may be entering a decisive phase.

International concern over Syria's intentions has been heightened by reports that its chemical weapons have been moved and could be prepared for use.

"The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community and if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community," Rasmussen told reporters at the start of a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Brussels.

The chemical threat made it urgent for the alliance to send Patriot anti-missile missiles to Turkey, Rasmussen said.

The French Foreign Ministry referred to "possible movements on military bases storing chemical weapons in Syria" and said the international community would react if they were used.

Britain has told the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons would have "serious consequences", Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday told Assad not to use chemical weapons, without saying how the United States might respond. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it would never use such weapons against Syrians.

CLASSIFIED INTELLIGENCE

The U.S. has collected what has been described as highly classified intelligence information demonstrating that Syria is making what could be construed as preparations to use elements of its extensive chemical weapons arsenal, two U.S. government sources briefed on the issue said.

One of the sources said that there was no question that the US "Intelligence community" had received information pointing to "preparations" under way in Syria related to chemical weapons. The source declined to specify what kind of preparations had been reported, or how close the intelligence indicated the Syrians were to deploying or even using the weapons.

Western military experts say Syria has four suspected chemical weapons sites, and it can produce chemical weapons agents including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent. The CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tonnes of agents annually.

The fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the United Nations and European Union to reduce their presence in the capital, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in.

The army fightback came a day after the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman was reported to have defected in a potentially embarrassing blow to the government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 people were killed across Syria on Monday, more than 60 of them around Damascus. Assad's forces bombarded districts to the south-east of the capital on Tuesday, near to the international airport, and in the rebel bastion of Daraya to the south-west.

Opposition footage posted on the Internet showed a multiple rocket launcher fire 20 rockets, which activists said was filmed at the Mezze military airport in Damascus.

Reuters could not independently verify the footage due to the government's severe reporting restrictions.

In central Damascus, shielded for many months from the full force of a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed, one resident reported hearing several loud explosions.

"I have heard four or five thunderous blows. It could be barrel bombs," she said, referring to makeshift bombs which activists say Assad's forces have dropped from helicopters on rebel-dominated areas.

MORTAR ATTACK

The state news agency said that 28 students and a teacher were killed near the capital when rebels fired a mortar bomb on a school. Rebels have targeted government-held residential districts of the capital.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing military bases, including some close to Damascus, from forces loyal to Assad, who is from Syria's Alawite minority linked to Shi'ite Islam.

Faced with creeping rebel gains across the north and east of the country, and the growing challenge around the capital, Assad has increasingly resorted to air strikes against the insurgents.

A diplomat in the Middle East said Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi had left the country and defected, while the British-based Observatory said it had information that he flew from Beirut on Monday afternoon heading for London.

In Beirut, a diplomat said Lebanese officials had confirmed that Makdissi spent several days in Beirut before leaving on Monday, but could not confirm his destination.

"We're aware of reports that he has defected and may be coming to the UK. We're seeking clarification," a Foreign Office spokeswoman in London said.

Makdissi was the public face to the outside world of Assad's government as it battled the 20-month-old uprising. But he had barely appeared in public for several weeks before Monday's report of his defection.

He had little influence in a system largely run by the security apparatus and the military. But Assad's opponents will see the loss of such a high profile figure, if confirmed, as further evidence of a system crumbling from within.

The United Nations and European Union both said they were reducing their presence in Syria in response to the escalated violence around the capital.

A spokesman for U.N. humanitarian operations said the move would not stop aid deliveries to areas which remained accessible to relief convoys.

"U.N.-funded aid supplies delivered through SARC (Syrian Arab Red Crescent) and other charities are still moving daily where the roads are open," Jens Laerke told Reuters in Geneva.

"We have not suspended our operation, we are reducing the non-essential international staff."

Three remaining international staff at the European Union delegation, who stayed on in Damascus after the departure of most Western envoys, crossed the border into Lebanon on Tuesday after pulling out of the Syrian capital.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Cairo, Erika Solomon, Oliver Holmes and Ayat Basma in Beirut, Mark Hosenball, Mohammed Abbas and David Cutler in London, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Comments (12)
Slammy wrote:
For those concerned about terrorist remaining in Syria if Mr. Al Assad, aka The Cowardly lion, is disposed, do not worry! According to the official Syrian news network there are only a few terrorists inside the country operating in isolated locations. Further, according to Sana, most of these “terrorists” have been cleansed over the past several months. What are people worried about again?

Dec 04, 2012 8:31am EST  --  Report as abuse
sidevalve56 wrote:
If syria meddled in other country’s business like they are meddling in syria’s business there would be all kinds of blowback…even if you don’t agree with another country’s internal affairs, it still doesn’t make it right to encroach on their soverneignty. What started as a relatively small rebellion, has, with outside aid, bloomed into full civil war…giving rebels arms and military aid has been at the cost of lives. Assad definitely isn’t on the list for any nobel peace prizes but the rebels trying to overthrow the government aren’t either…they are terrorists.

Dec 04, 2012 8:42am EST  --  Report as abuse
Slammy wrote:
@sidevalve56
“If syria meddled in other country’s business like they are meddling in syria’s business there would be all kinds of blowback”

In a perfect world, sure. But if not for the French meddling in English affairs the United States probably never would have gained its independence, or it would have taken a lot longer without their navy. If the allies would have meddled in Nazi Germany sooner there might have been fewer people killed in world war 2.
However, in this case, besides the few jihadist, the world really has not done much. Sure Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a few other Arab countries have given arms but these countries share tribes and deep family connections. While the regime blames the United States for everything, the insurgents blame the US for not providing enough help.
This started off as a popular uprising because the government tortures and kills its own people. Neutrality for the sake of neutrality always aids the bully and tyrant, so I am glad to see these few isolated bands of insurgents are able to make a difference against an army with over 160,000 regular force and a million reserves. Makes one wonder how the insurgents have lasted as long as they have.
Question, are the defections from the army and other high ranking officials meddling? Are they meddling in their own country and is that wrong? Is wrong to help those who working toward a better government?

Go Insurgents!

Dec 04, 2012 11:22am EST  --  Report as abuse
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