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President Barack Obama warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad not to use or distribute its stock of chemical weapons, as U.S. officials saw evidence that the country’s embattled regime may be preparing to unleash such weapons to repel advances by rebel fighters.
“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: the world is watching,” Obama said yesterday in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable, and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
U.S. reconnaissance satellites and other tools last week detected increased activity at several chemical weapons depots in Syria, including movement of some weapons into position where President Assad’s forces could more quickly deliver them by aircraft or artillery, two U.S. officials said.
Intelligence sources also picked up orders to at least one Syrian military base to begin combining the two precursor chemical components of Sarin nerve gas to make it ready to use, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence details. Syrian authorities have stored the components, which produce a deadly nerve agent when mixed, in secure separate facilities, according to the officials.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry yesterday denied that the regime planned to use chemical weapons against it own people.
The 20-month uprising against Assad’s minority Alawite ruling party -- which the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said has killed more than 30,000 people -- appears to be at or near a decisive moment, according to the U.S. officials. Regime leaders may fear that they may soon be forced to decide whether to flee into exile, fight to the death or delay defeat by using chemical weapons, the officials said.
The fighting has drawn close to Damascus, the capital, and rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime have gained the ability to shoot down Syrian warplanes and helicopters with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles supplied by Persian Gulf states, the U.S. officials said.
The Syrian government yesterday sent fighter jets to bomb suburbs around Damascus to keep rebel fighters from the center of the city, the Voice of America reported, citing the U.K.- based Syrian Observatory.
The U.S. has been working with Jordan and Turkey in an effort to monitor chemical weapons sites “and try to determine how best to respond to any concerns in that area,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in October. “A group of our forces” are in Jordan to help build a headquarters and assist with “possible consequences of what’s happening in Syria,” Panetta said Oct. 10 at a news conference in Brussels.
The U.S. will take action if it sees evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday. “This is a red line for the United States,” she said in Prague. She declined to say what specific action the U.S. might take.
In London today, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague warned of a “serious response from the international community” if Syria uses chemical weapons and said contingency plans are being readied.
“We’ve expressed in no uncertain terms directly to the Syrian regime the gravity of any use of chemical weapons,” Hague told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “This would cause us to revisit our approach to Syria.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday that the Syrian regime would cross the U.S. “red line” if it provides chemical weapons to others as well as if it uses such weapons itself.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said concern has increased that the Assad regime might turn to its chemical weapons stockpiles as it fails to stem the upheaval by conventional means.
“With the regime’s grip on power loosening, with its failure to put down the opposition through conventional means, we have an increased concern about the possibility of the regime taking the desperate act of using its chemical weapons,” Carney told reporters.
The U.S. last publicly warned Syria about chemical weapons in July when Obama said the regime “will be held accountable” if the weapons were unleashed, after the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the nation’s stockpiles were secure.
Syria has repeatedly said that it won’t use any chemical weapons, if they exist, against its people no matter the circumstances, an official source at the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said yesterday, according to the website of Syrian state television. The Syrian source, who wasn’t identified, said the U.S. has a record of fabricating such issues as a pretext for war, citing the invasion of Iraq, according to the report.
Citing the worsening security situation in Syria, the United Nations yesterday ordered the pullout of all its non- essential staff, according to spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Turkey has asked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deploy Patriot missile batteries on its soil for the first time in about a decade amid fears that Syria may launch a punitive attack, which could include the use of chemical weapons, against the country for backing Syrian rebels.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is concerned that Hezbollah or other groups could gain control of Syria’s chemical weapons if Assad’s regime collapses. Netanyahu has said he wouldn’t rule out Israeli action in such a case.
To contact the reporters on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; John Walcott in Washington at email@example.com
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