July 24 (Bloomberg) -- The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the nation’s chemical weapons are secure and won’t be used against insurgents, as U.S. President Barack Obama warned Syrian officials they “will be held accountable” if those weapons are unleashed.
Chemical weapons “would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis,” ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said at a Damascus press conference shown on state-run television.
“All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian Army,” he said, presenting part of his remarks in English. “These weapons are meant to be used only and strictly in the event of external aggression” against Syria, he said.
The comment left uncertain whether Makdissi was issuing a warning against foreign support for opposition fighters, who the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad already characterize as foreign-backed terrorists. Further clouding the issue, the Foreign Ministry tried to roll back Makdissi’s comments with a subsequent written statement saying he was deliberately misinterpreted as confirming for the first time that Syria holds chemical weapons.
“The goal of the statement and the press conference wasn’t to declare but rather to respond to a methodical media campaign targeting Syria to prepare world public opinion for the possibility of military intervention under the false premise of weapons of mass destruction (similar to what happened with Iraq) or the possibility of using such weapons against terrorist groups or civilians, or transporting them to a third party,” the ministry said in its written statement.
Obama, addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada, later in the day said the U.S. and other nations are monitoring how Syria handles its unconventional weapons.
“Given the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons,” he said.
Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said Makdissi’s remarks were an acknowledgment that Syria has unconventional weapons.
“It’s an admission that’s been made a necessity by them trying to reassure the Americans and the Israelis,” Shaikh said in an interview from Doha. “They may have calculated that it would take a little bit of the heat off them.”
The U.S. and Israel have led the charge among countries expressing concern about what will happen to Syria’s long-suspected arsenal of chemical weapons as the violence escalates.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said July 22 that he is concerned that Hezbollah or other groups could gain control of chemical weapons, rockets and missiles if Assad’s government collapses, adding that he didn’t rule out Israeli action in such a case.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said yesterday that Israel would “respond in a very aggressive manner” to the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group that fought a war with Israel in 2006.
U.S. intelligence officials said July 22 that Assad’s forces have moved some of the country’s stocks of sarin and VX nerve gas and other chemical weapons. They said it wasn’t clear whether the Syrians are trying to secure the weapons or move them into position to use against the opposition.
Makdissi said his government is concerned that the rebels will be supplied with such weapons “from the outside” and use them against the government, or that “mines that contain bacteriological materials would explode in one of the villages, so that the Syrian forces get the blame afterwards.”
In the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against the overthrow of Assad.
“If the country’s current leadership is removed from power in an unconstitutional way, then the opposition and today’s leaders will switch places,” Putin told reporters after talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti in Sochi. “Civil war will break out and no one knows for how long.”
The conflict, which began in March of last year as a largely peaceful protest movement, has left more than 19,000 people dead, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail that 82 people were killed across Syria yesterday, including 44 in Damascus and its suburbs and 10 in Aleppo.
The Syrian government said yesterday that it inflicted heavy losses on rebels in Damascus and Aleppo, destroying trucks and confiscating large amounts of weapons, according to the state-run Sana news agency. It said the “dens of terrorists” included foreign nationals from Jordan, Egypt, Libya and other countries.
The turmoil has made it difficult for international observers to get a clear picture of the extent of the bloodshed, with the opposition’s numbers questioned as exaggerated and the government accused of under-reporting the toll. About 300 unarmed United Nations monitors are leaving the country because of the danger.
The European Union announced yesterday a fresh round of sanctions on Syria, targeting 26 intelligence and military figures and tightening an arms embargo.
Arab League foreign ministers who met in Doha, Qatar, on July 22 urged Assad in a statement to step down in exchange for a safe way out. They also called on the Syrian opposition and the Free Syrian Army to form an interim government to ensure a smooth transfer of power, according to Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, Kuwait’s deputy prime minister. His remarks were carried by the official Qatar News Agency.
Assad “can do more than anyone else to put an end to the destruction and the killings by taking a courageous step,” Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr Al-Thani said, according to the news agency.
Makdissi dismissed such a push as “blatant” interference in Syrian affairs.
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