As the struggle for Syria intensified, Western leaders seized on an admission by Damascus that it has chemical and biological arms and could use them if foreign powers intervened. “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,” US President Barack Obama said in a speech to veterans in Reno, Nevada.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Syria’s chemical weapons were under “strict surveillance by the international community” and that their use would be unacceptable.
In the city’s northeastern district of Qaboun, most streets were empty except for people returning to check on homes, some of which were destroyed in last week’s battles there.
“I came just to pick up some of my family’s belongings, I am not returning for now,” one woman said outside her building.
Groups of men were pulling bodies from beneath the rubble of one building. “We have removed 25 bodies so far from this area, we are burying them quickly,” one said.
With battles raging in Syrian cities, Western and many Arab nations are pushing for Assad’s removal, although Russia, China, Iran and Iraq are among others opposed to any forced handover of power.
‘Against Arab interest’
The head of the Arab League said in an interview published on Tuesday that Assad’s days in office were numbered. “There is now no talk about political reform, but (about) a transfer of power,” Nabil Elaraby told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat.
Arab ministers meeting in Doha on Sunday called on Assad to relinquish power, adding that the League would help provide a safe exit for him and his family if he did so.
Elaraby said he would soon travel to China and Russia, which have three times blocked UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, to try to persuade them to change course.
“Our message to the Russians will be, with clarity and frankness, that the veto decision they took is viewed as being against Arab interests,” Elaraby said.
The ferocity of the Syria conflict, in which 1,261 people have been killed since fighting intensified in Damascus on July 15, according to one opposition watchdog, has concentrated attention on the possible repercussions of Assad’s overthrow.
Apparently responding to US and Israeli concerns that Syria’s non-conventional weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups, Damascus acknowledged for the first time that it possessed chemical and biological arms.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels but could use them against forces from outside the country.
“Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used ... during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments,” Makdissi said on Monday. “These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression.”
Damascus has not signed a 1992 international convention that bans the use, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, but officials in the past had denied it had any stockpiles.
Britain, Germany and other countries also said it was unacceptable for Syria to say it might use chemical arms. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was very concerned Syria may be tempted to use unconventional weapons.
Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Assad’s Lebanese Shiite allies.