U.S. Sees No New Signs Syria Is Mixing Chemicals: Panetta

The U.S. has received no recent intelligence indicating that Syria is taking “aggressive steps” to prepare chemical weapons for use against rebel forces, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

Intelligence reporting on such preparations “has leveled off,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kuwait today. The U.S. has made it clear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons would invite military action and “I like to believe he got the message,” he said.

Western leaders have warned Assad that the use of chemical weapons would have consequences, without detailing what action they might take. Syria’s Foreign Ministry wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledging not to use such weapons under any circumstances, Syrian state-run television reported on Dec. 8.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RMC Radio today that Western powers know the locations of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Dec. 8 that Britain and the U.S. have seen evidence from “intelligence sources” indicating that Syria is preparing to use the weapons.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Syria doesn’t possess “weapons that are banned internationally, whether chemical, nuclear or biological.”

‘Moral Reasons’

“Even if it had them, it won’t and cannot use them for moral reasons,” Zoubi said in an interview yesterday with Lebanon’s Al Manar TV. A report of the interview was carried today on the website of state-run Syrian TV.

Panetta said the U.S. remains worried that arms flowing from Libya to Syria may end up being distributed to “groups or terrorists who then represent an even more dangerous threat.”

More than 500,000 Syrians have registered as refugees in neighboring countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said today.

“Syrian refugees arriving during recent bad weather reached Jordan with soaked clothing and mud-covered shoes due to heavy rainfall,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR chief spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement today. “UNHCR protection teams described the night-time arrivals as fearful, freezing and without proper winter clothing.”

Assad has been fighting an insurgency that began with peaceful protests in March 2011 before turning violent a few months later. More than 41,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least 46 people were killed across Syria today, including 15 in Damascus and its suburbs, where clashes were reported between rebel forces closing in on the city and Assad’s troops, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said.

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