SYRIA. Syria’s government said its chemical weapons are secure under the army’s control and won’t be used against insurgents.
Unconventional weapons would only be used in the event of “external aggression,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said at a press conference shown on state-run television today. “All the stocks of these weapons that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses are monitored and guarded by the Syrian army.”
The U.S. and Israel are among countries that have raised concern about what will happen to Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons in the escalating civil war between President Bashar al- Assad’s government and rebel groups. The conflict, which began in March 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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday 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 today 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 yesterday said 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.”
When asked what action the government would take if Israel targeted Syria’s unconventional weapons, he said: “Don’t ever ask a diplomat a question on war. Hopefully there won’t be a war.”
Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said Makdissi’s remarks are an admission that Syria has unconventional weapons.
“It’s 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.”
Makdissi also dismissed as “blatant” interference an Arab League offer for Assad to give up power in return for safe passage to end the bloodshed in his country.
“The Syrian people are the only ones who determine their destiny,” said Makdissi.
Arab League foreign ministers who met in Doha, Qatar, late yesterday 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.
“President Bashar al-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.
The spread of the conflict to former bastions of government power has highlighted the army’s inability to crush the uprising. The latest fighting has centered on the capital, Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo. Turkey withdrew its consul general from Aleppo today, NTV television reported.
The balance of power in Syria has changed since last week’s bombing in Damascus that killed four of the country’s top military officers in charge of fighting the insurgency, said Sami Nader, an economist and professor of international relations at Beirut’s St. Joseph University.
Assad is “no longer in a position where he can dictate the rules,” Nader said. “The only card he may exchange is his personal security.”
The government said today 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.