Syria insists chemical weapons would only be used against outside forces

Damascus responds to warnings from Israel and US by insisting chemical arsenal would never be used on the Syrian people
Ian Black, Middle East editor 

Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said: ‘No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used … no matter what the developments inside Syria.’ Photograph: Str/EPA
Syria has made it clear that it would only use deadly chemical or biological weapons if it was attacked by outside forces and flatly rejected a call by the Arab League for President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power to end the country’s escalating crisis.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, added his voice to a chorus of alarm over the issue as the Damascus government scored what observers ridiculed as a damaging own goal on Monday by admitting for the first time that it possessed an arsenal of the banned weapons.
“It would be reprehensible if anyone in Syria would use weapons of mass destruction,” Ban told reporters during a visit to Serbia.

Barack Obama said Assad would be held accountable if made the “tragic mistake” of using chemical weapons. “The world is watching,” the American president said.

“Threatening to use chemical weapons is monstrous,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle.

Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, was responding to public and private warnings from Israel and the US by insisting that the weapons would only be used in case of a foreign attack on Syria and not against its own people, as the opposition has warned could happen.

“No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used … no matter what the developments inside Syria,” he said at a press conference, reading from a prepared statement. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”

Makdissi sought to link Syria to Iraq’s experience before the 2003 US-led invasion by claiming that the issue was being raised to “justify and prepare the international community’s military intervention in Syria under the false pretext of WMD [weapons of mass destruction]”.

But William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, seized on the remarks to attack Assad. “This is typical of the complete illusion of this regime that they are the victims of external aggression,” he said. “What is actually happening is their own people are rising up against a brutal police state. It is nothing to do with any aggression from anywhere else in the world and in any case it is unacceptable to say that they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances.”

Until now, Syria has never officially confirmed it has chemical weapons, though it is no surprise that it does. Like Israel, it is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty banning production. Israel also has a large, undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Syrian opposition sources said the regime had been rattled by warnings from Israel that it would act to prevent weapons being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon or falling into the hands of jihadi-type groups fighting Assad.

Syria also quickly rebuffed the Arab League’s call from the Qatari capital, Doha, for Assad to go in return for “safe passage” for him and his family and for opposition forces to set up a transitional government of national unity. “If the Arab nations who met in Doha were honest about wanting to stop the bloodshed, they would have stopped supplying arms and stop their instigation and propaganda,” Makdissi said.

“All their statements are hypocritical.” Qatar and Saudi Arabia are leading supporters of the Free Syrian Army, the opposition’s main armed wing.

Qatar’s prime minister, Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, urged Assad to take the “courageous” decision to surrender power in order to save Syria, where fierce fighting continues to rage between government troops and rebels. An estimated 17,000-19,000 people have been killed in the last 16 months.

Last week’s bomb attacks in Damascus, which killed four of Assad’s top security advisers, combined with fighting in the capital and Aleppo, have been widely seen as a turning-point for the regime.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers voted to tighten sanctions and to require all member states to search aeroplanes and ships suspected of carrying weapons or banned equipment into Syria. The decision added 29 names to a list of more than 170 individuals and companies associated with repression or benefiting from Assad’s regime.

The number of Syrian refugees fleeing fighting in their country has reached 115,000 and aid agencies must develop a plan to deal with the growing humanitarian emergency, EU officials said on Monday at a meeting in Cyprus, the closest EU member state to Syria. Cyprus has drafted contingency plans to assist in the evacuation of up to 200,000 people – EU passport holders and third-country nationals – as a worst case scenario.

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