Chemical weapons? Syria 'backpedaling furiously' over weapons threats

One day after threatening to unleash chemical weapons if it were invaded, Syria denies having unconventional weapons, and says West is preparing an Iraq-style intervention.

Ugarit News via AP video/AP
In this image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Monday, July 23, a Free Syrian Army soldier looks at a Syrian military vehicle that caught on fire during clashes with Syrian government troops in Aleppo, Syria. One day after threatening to unleash chemical weapons if it were invaded, Syria denies having unconventional weapons.

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Syrian rebels have accused the Assad regime of moving its chemical weapons to the borders, even as the Syrian government has been "backpedalling furiously" from its warning yesterday that it would use its chemical arsenal against foreign intervention in the civil war gripping the nation.

Agence France-Presse reports that the Free Syrian Army warned in a statement today that President Bashar al-Assad's government has been moving its chemical weapons to new locations along the Syrian border

"We in the joint command of the Free Syrian Army inside the country know very well the locations and positions of these weapons," the statement said. "We also reveal that Assad has transferred some of these weapons and equipment for mixing chemical components to airports on the border."

"According to our information, the regime began moving its stocks of weapons of mass destruction several months ago ... with the goal of putting pressure on the region and the international community."

The FSA's statement comes as the Syrian government appears to be stepping back from yesterday's warning that the regime has a chemical arsenal that it will use against foreign intervention.

Yesterday foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi publicly acknowledged Syria's chemical arsenal for the first time, saying that “Those weapons will only be used in the case of exterior aggression.” Mr. Makdissi also said that the weapons “will not be used against Syrian civilians,” and that “they will never be used domestically no matter how the crisis evolves.”

But The Guardian writes that Syria's foreign ministry and information ministry have been "backpedaling furiously" from yesterday's statement, and speculates that Makdissi may have spoken out of turn. The Guardian notes that Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said that "When the foreign ministry spokesman says that Syria will not use chemical weapons against its people, then this doesn't mean that Syria has such weapons in the first place." And the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) claimed today that Makdissi's comments were taken out of context "as a declaration of possessing non-traditional weapons."

The Ministry said that the goal of the statement and the press conference wasn't to declare but rather to respond to a methodical media campaign targeting Syria to prepare world public opinion for the possibility of military intervention under the false premise of weapons of mass destruction (similar to what happened with Iraq) or the possibility of using such weapons against terrorist groups or civilians, or transporting them to a third party.

The SANA statement suggests that the Assad regime may fear that acknowledgement of its chemical arsenal could incite, rather than deter, Western nations' intervention in the Syrian crisis. Western nations roundly criticized yesterday's statement, reports USA Today, and President Obama warned that Assad would be held accountable for use of Syria's chemical weapons.

"Given the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching – and that they will be held accountable by the international community, and the United States, should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons," Obama said. 

Reuters reports that Israel believes that the Assad regime remains in control of its chemical weapons. "The worry, of course, is that the regime will destabilize and the control will also destabilize," Israeli official Amos Gilad told Israel Radio. "At the moment, the entire non-conventional weapons system is under the full control of the regime."

But while Assad's chemical arsenal remains of prime concern, conventional guerrilla warfare continues on the ground in Syria. Col. Malik Kurdi, a Free Syrian Army spokesman, told The Washington Post that the rebels were forced to retreat from Damascus because they lacked the weapons to maintain a prolonged, toe-to-toe struggle with regime forces.

“The Free Syrian Army is carrying out a war of harassing the regime army until it is exhausted, using guerrilla tactics,” he said, speaking by telephone from the military refugee camp in southern Turkey where the rebel leadership is based. “We can’t keep control of an area, so this is a circular operation, moving from one place to another, one city to another, to tire the regime out.”

And Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi told pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that the Assad regime is set to fall, and that he would soon be traveling to Russia and China to encourage them to end their obstruction of UN Security Council action on Syria. "Our message to the Russians will be, with clarity and frankness, that the veto decision they took is viewed as being against Arab interests. We hope for a review of the matter, especially given that they know that the days of the current regime in Syria are numbered," he said.

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