Syria's top defector says Assad not afraid to use chemical weapons

Syria is believed to have the Arab world's largest stockpile of chemical weapons. An ex-official warned that Assad would use them if backed into a corner.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Jubar, near Damascus, on Monday, July 16.

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As fighting continued for a third day in the capital of Damascus, the highest-level politician to defect from the Syrian regime warned today that President Bashar al-Assad would not hesitate to use chemical weapons if cornered.

During an interview with the BBC in Qatar, former Syrian Ambassador to Iraq Nawaf Fares was asked about Mr. Assad's willingness to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.  "There is some information, unconfirmed information of course, that chemical weapons have been used partially in Homs," Mr. Fares said through a translator.  "However, I have absolute conviction that if the circle of the people of Syria becomes tighter on the regime, the regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons."

The BBC's Frank Gardner, who interviewed Fares, notes in a separate article that the ex-ambassador only offered his convictions as evidence of his chemical weapons claims. "I have built my opinion based on my knowledge of the regime's mentality and the government's mentality," Fares told Mr. Gardner.

Syria is thought to have the largest chemical arsenal in the Arab world, and the civil war has stoked international concern that the weapons could be seized by rebel or terrorist forces, or damaged and dispersed by the fighting, The Christian Science Monitor reports. 

Hard data on Syria's chemical and biological warfare capabilities is scarce, but the country is believed to have one of the largest chemical agents stockpiles in the world, including VX and Sarin nerve agents. It also has an impressive number of surface-to-surface missiles, such as Scud-Ds which can be fitted with chemical warheads, and modern Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries, including portable shoulder-fired systems.

"This is unknown territory," says Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at theWashington-based Federation of American Scientists. "We have never been through the potential collapse via a very bloody ethnic civil war of a country that is likely armed with a very large stockpile of chemical weapons.”

On July 13, Assad's forces began moving chemical weapons out of storage facilities, according to US sources. Israeli officials believe this was part of an effort to secure the weapons, the Guardian reports.

"[The arsenal] is dispersed and under the control of a dedicated army unit that has a high degree of loyalty to the regime and is commanded by senior Alawites [Assad's sect]," said a senior official in Jerusalem. "It has not been involved in the nitty-gritty of fighting. It has been impacted by it but has not been used to fight the people. There are signs that Syria has understood the problem."

SES Türkiye writes that experts are divided on whether Assad would be willing to use chemical weapons.  Kemal Kaya, a defense analyst at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute, told the media outlet that Assad would likely refrain from their use for fear of "devastating retaliation" by NATO and Turkey.  But retired Turkish Col. Atilla Sandikli noted that the fact that Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter last month suggests that Assad is not worried about the international community.

The concern about chemical weapons comes amid the more extended fighting in the capital city of Damascus.  The Associated Press reports that Damascus quieted somewhat this morning after overnight battles, including the deployment of combat helicopters into the city.  Reuters reports that regime forces have surrounded rebel areas, but have been unable to rout the opposition.

One fighter told Reuters the rebels were continuing their fight because they had no way to retreat to safer areas. "If they could leave, they would," he said.

Opposition activists said clashes close to the seat of government showed that rebels were chipping away at state power in a capital once seen as Assad's impenetrable stronghold.

"When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city," said Damascus-based activist Imad Moaz. "The rebels in the street have the support of families across Damascus."

Former Ambassador Nawaf, in his interview with the BBC, also underscored the importance of the fighting in Damascus.  "Of course, this has very big significance," he said.  "The regime tried with all its powers to keep the capital out of this conflict and out of the reaches of the revolution. However, the expansion of the revolution and its power and its control in Syria is increasing day by day."

There were also reports yesterday that the fighting in Syria briefly spilled over into Lebanon. The Daily Star writes that, according to security sources, a group of Syrian soldiers crossed the Syrian-Lebanese border last night and engaged in battle with an unidentified group in East Lebanon for about 20 minutes. One Syrian soldier was reported to have been found dead in the area.

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