Syria chemical weapons a 'red line': US
04 December 2012, 12:02
Beirut - Syria vowed on Monday not to use chemical weapons against its own people, amid direct warnings from the highest levels of the US government following news reports suggesting chemical weapons activity within war-torn Syria.
Both US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their spokespersons issued warnings to Damascus that any use of chemical weapons against the rebels fighting the regime would not go unanswered.
"I want to make it absolutely clear to [President Bashar] Assad and those under his command that the world is watching," Obama said at a symposium on nuclear non-proliferation at the National Defence University near Washington.
"The use of chemical weapons is and will be totally unacceptable. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you would be held accountable."
Clinton, speaking earlier in Prague, warned that the United States would take action if Syria used chemical weapons against its own people.
"Once again we issue a very strong warning to the Assad regime that their behaviour is reprehensible," Clinton said. "Their actions against their own people have been tragic. We are certainly planning to take action if [chemical weapon use] were to occur."
Mustard gas, sarin
Damascus responded by issuing a statement on state-run television quoting a Foreign Ministry official as saying Syria "will never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons against its own people, if such weapons exist".
Western media reports cited unnamed US officials as saying that al-Assad's government had moved its chemical weapons, raising fears he could use them against rebels making gains in their fight to overthrow the regime.
Syria's arsenal is believed to include mustard gas and sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent.
The New York Times on Sunday quoted an unnamed US official referring to Syria's "potential chemical weapon preparation". The activity included the transfer of some weapons to different locations within the country.
The website Wired reported on Monday that engineers working for al-Assad's regime had begun combining the two chemical precursors needed to weaponise sarin gas. Wired attributed the information to a US official with knowledge of the situation.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said the US was concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime might be considering the use of chemical weapons after finding the use of conventional weapons inadequate.
Carney also referred to Obama's statement in August about Syria crossing a "red line" on chemical weapons. The US has resisted direct military involvement in the Syrian conflict, but Obama said a change in the status of Syria's chemical weapons would alter that.
"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus."
The rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks after months of stalemate, capturing military bases and in recent days making a push to capture the main civilian airport in Damascus.
Clinton's warning came as the leaders of Russia, Syria's main ally, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, met in Istanbul to discuss the conflict, on which they are divided.
"We are not protecting the regime, and we are not advocates for [the Syrian regime] ... what worries us is the future of Syria," Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putin was scheduled to meet Erdogan in October, but the visit was postponed after Turkey said it had found Russian-made military equipment on a Damascus-bound Syrian plane.
Syrian forces used fighter jets and artillery fire on Monday to pound rebel-held areas around the airport, while rebels claimed they had cut electricity to the facility.
Airport shut down
State television said troops struck hard at "terrorist bases" near the airport and the battle "to protect Damascus" continues.
Activists in Damascus said that groups of army "special forces" were seen deploying near the airport road and its outskirts.
The airport came to a complete halt on Friday when rebels and troops clashed near the complex, prompting several airlines to suspend flights.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, reported that government forces were enhancing posts near the airport, as well as near the Mezzeh military airport.
Both transport facilities are key for the regime, especially the Mezzeh airport, as it is the closet to the presidential palace in the capital, Observatory head Rami Abdul-Rahman told dpa.
The Local Co-ordination Committees, another activist group, said 150 people were killed on Monday. It added that 30 men were summarily executed in area at the outskirts of Damascus.
The escalating violence prompted the United Nations and the European Union to decide to reduce the activities of their missions in Syria.
Meanwhile, Arab media reports said that Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi was either sacked or resigned from his post. Other reports said he had defected.