Syria's chemical weapons only for "external aggression"

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A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on 11 July 2012, shows the launching of a missile named "Tishreen." (Photo: AFP – SANA)

Published Monday, July 23, 2012

Syria's chemical weapons will never be used on its civilians even if the situation in the country deteriorates further, a foreign ministry spokesperson said on Monday.

Jihad Makdissi told a press conference that the country's chemical weapons would only ever be used against foreign aggressors.

"Syria will not use any chemical or other unconventional weapons against its civilians, and will only use them in case of external aggression," he said.

"Syria will never use (chemical weapons) against Syrians no matter what."

US President Barack Obama responded swiftly, warning Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad not to make the "tragic mistake" of deciding to unleash his stockpile of chemical weapons.

"Given the regime's stockpile of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching," Obama told an audience of US veterans in the western US state of Nevada.

"They will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons," he added.

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said the use of chemical weapons would be "reprehensible."

"It would be reprehensible if anybody in Syria is contemplating (the) use of such weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons," Ban told reporters in Belgrade.

Earlier this month the United States warned that the Syrian government was failing to safeguard the country's chemical stockpiles, with US intelligence suggesting some weapons were being moved.

Syria is said to possess hundreds of chemical warheads, primarily as a deterrent against a full-scale attack from Israel.

Makdissi said Syria was in a "state of war, but not against civilians," adding that Damascus is fighting a campaign "led by Washington and its allies but we are in a position to defend ourselves."

Israel has expressed increasing anxiety over the weapons in recent weeks, fearing that Syria's arsenal could fall into the hands of al-Qaeda linked groups as Saudi and Qatari-backed Islamist insurgents flood into the country.

Over the weekend, Israel threatened to intervene militarily inside Syria if chemical weapons were to be transferred to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they would act if such as situation occurred as "it's something that is not acceptable to us (and) not acceptable to the United States."

Makdissi did not directly respond to Israel's threat, or state whether Syria would fire missiles at the Jewish state in response to an Israeli attack.

A transfer of the weapons to Hezbollah seems unlikely, however, as the non-state actor lacks the required complex infrastructure to launch the missiles.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged last week that Syria had played an important role in assisting the Lebanese group during Israel's July 2006 war on Lebanon, including providing rockets.

Rejects Arab League call

Makdissi also said the Syrian government rejected an Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to give up power.

He said the decision on the future of Assad could only be made by the Syrian people.

"We are sorry that the Arab League has descended to this level concerning a member state of this institution," he said.

"This decision only concerns the Syrian people, who are the sole masters of fate of their governments."

"If the Arab nations who met in Doha were honest about wanting to stop the bloodshed they would have stopped supplying arms... they would stop their instigation and propaganda," he said. "All their statements are hypocritical."

The Arab League on Monday called on Assad to swiftly step aside in order to end the fighting that has swept across the country.

"There is agreement on the need for the rapid resignation of President Bashar al-Assad," Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani told journalists at the end of the ministerial meeting in Doha.

The Arab League also urged the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to form a transitional government.

"We call on the opposition and the Free Syrian Army to form a government of national unity," Sheikh Hamad said.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the chief backers of the FSA, providing weapons and finance for the armed rebels.

Government to retake border posts

Makdissi added that the government was determined to regain control of several border posts that rebel forces seized along the frontier with Iraq and Turkey within days.

"Two border posts are currently outside the control (of authorities), but they have been out of use since June and it is easy to send a few armed men to take them over," he said.

The rebels "will not hold onto them and they will be gone in a few days," he added.

Rebel forces have battled government troops for control of several border crossings, and have reportedly seized at least three posts between Syria and Turkey and one between Syria and Iraq.

They have also tried but failed to take hold of a post between Syria and Jordan.

Putin warns of civil war

The diplomatic row over the crisis also continued on Monday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin warning of a protracted civil war in Syria should Assad be "unconstitutionally" removed from power by rebel fighters.

"We are afraid that if the country's current leadership is removed from power unconstitutionally, then the opposition and today's leadership may simply change places," the Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.

"One will become (the new) leadership and the other – the opposition."

Putin warned that in that case "a civil war will stretch on for who knows how long," Interfax reported.

His comments came shortly after the president of the semi-autonomous Russia region of Chechnya denied that fighters from the area were involved in the insurgency against Assad.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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