Syria holds out threat of chemical weapons against ‘exterior aggression’

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a part-reassuring, part-worrisome answer Monday to growing international concerns about the country’s substantial stockpile of chemical weapons.

No, a regime spokesman said, we will not use chemical weapons against other Syrians in the ongoing conflict. But foreign powers should know, the spokesman went on to say, that Syria might resort to these weapons to stop foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs.

Coming less than a month after the Syrian military shot down a Turkish fighter jet that it said strayed into its airspace, the chilling warning was clearly intended to be taken seriously. The regime’s suggestion that it might use the weapons seems certain to intensify discussions among world powers, including the United States and Israel, of how to address the chemical-weapons issue.

As if in response to the mounting international concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi read a statement in Damascus Monday in which he said that the weapons “will not be used against Syrian civilians,” insisting that “they will never be used domestically no matter how the crisis evolves.”

But then he added, “Those weapons will only be used in the case of exterior aggression.”

The Foreign Ministry statement appeared to be Syria’s first official acknowledgment that it possesses chemical and biological weapons — although the government subsequently attempted to return to its traditional ambiguity on the question by inserting “if any” after the reference to chemical weapons in Mr. Makdissi’s statement.

The US has long affirmed that Syria holds major stockpiles of mustard gas and other chemical and biological weapons. Last week US officials disclosed that intelligence suggested the Syrian government was moving its stockpiles out of areas of heaviest fighting — a move that US officials saw as both positive and negative.

Moving the weapons to safer areas suggests the regime takes their possession seriously, but at the same time the need to move them underscored the regime’s slipping hold on power.

American military and intelligence officials have expressed concerns about Syria’s considerable stockpile of chemical and biological weapons since last year — and in particular over the threat that the weapons might go unprotected in an extended conflict and fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.

But concerns grew and indeed shifted last week to whether or not the regime might resort to using the weapons after a bombing that killed members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle suggested the regime is losing its grip on power.

Makdissi referred to the international focus on Syria’s weapons in the statement, drawing a comparison to Iraq and the US-led invasion in 2003 that was justified as a strike against Saddam Hussein’s supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) but which resulted in the ouster of Mr. Hussein. He said high-profile discussion “aims to justify and prepare the international community’s military intervention in Syria under the false pretext of WMD.”

Answering one set of concerns about Syria’s weapons, Makdissi said the country’s “chemical or bacterial weapons” are “stored and secured by Syrian military forces.”

But his warning about the possible consequences of foreign intervention was worrisome, because it left open the question of just what form or degree of foreign intervention might trigger the use of these weapons.

In the statement, for example, Makdissi condemned the Arab League’s weekend call on opposition forces to form a transitional government as a “flagrant intervention” in Syria’s internal affairs.

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