As rebel forces move closer to Damascus, there are reports of activity in Syrian chemical weapons sites, raising fears in the region that Syria could use those chemical weapons. NBC News reported that the Syrian army has loaded bombs with precursors of Sarin nerve gas which could then be loaded onto planes.
Syrian officials dismissed the report as ludicrous.
“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Maqdad said.
Despite his denials, U.S. officials issued harsh warnings about the consequences if Assad does decide to use them.
“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
“And so as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.”
The warnings come as the 20 months of fighting between Assad loyalists and rebels reached the outskirts of Damascus.
There is little question that Syria has large stocks of chemical weapons, although they have never officially acknowledged them. Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons treaty.
Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, believes that Syria is trying to send a message to the West that keeping the Assad regime in power means more stability for the region.
“When Syria says it would never use chemical weapons against its own people, the subtext is that they would use it against an invading force,” Shehadi told The Media Line. “They also imply that if the regime falls there is a high risk of these substances falling into the wrong hands. The regime is trying to frighten the West.”
Syria’s neighbors are also nervous. Israel fears Syria could give some of the chemical weapons to Hizbollah, the guerilla group in south Lebanon. Israeli officials admitted they are nervous.
“We are closely following the reports on chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “These reports are of obvious concern for all neighboring countries including Israel. Possible use of these weapons is absolutely unacceptable.”
The Atlantic magazine reported that Israel has asked Jordan for permission for a green light to attack Syrian chemical weapons facilities, but Jordan said “no.” The report said Israel could go it alone but does not want tensions with its neighbor.
A senior Israeli official would not confirm the report, but did say “there is close coordination with the Americans over the chemical weapons issue.”
Some Israeli analysts say it is doubtful that Syria would use chemical weapons, even if the regime was on its last legs.
“Assad knew that Western intelligence agencies would pick up the movement at the chemical weapons sites,” Eldad Pardo, an expert on Syria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “The regime is trying to intimidate the insurgents and make it an international issue.”