U.S. threatens ‘actions’ against Assad if chemical weapons are deployed in Syria

The United States on Monday warned the Syrian government against using chemical weapons as violence continues to rage in the 21-month civil war.

Speaking at the National Defense University, President Barack Obama threatened Syrian President Bashar al Assad with “consequences” if his regime deploys chemical weapons against opposition groups and civilians.

“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable, and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable,” said Obama. “We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century.”

Those warnings were echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit in Prague yesterday.

“I am not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people, but suffice it to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur,” said Clinton.

However, Obama and Clinton’s statements signaled that the U.S. may take military actions if Assad’s government crosses a “red line”, which the administration defined as the use or proliferation of chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama speaking at the National Defense University on Dec. 3, 2012. SOURCE: Department of Defense/Erin Kirk-Cuomo

The warnings were issued a day after the United Nations announced that it was withdrawing all non-essential staff from Syria, suggesting rapidly deteriorating security conditions on the ground or that an attack on a massive scale is imminent.

The White House and State Department declined to provide details on what prompted the warnings, only to say that the U.S. is closely monitoring the conflict and the weapons stockpiles in Syria.

“We obviously…base our knowledge on intelligence, but I’m not going to get into the specifics,” said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman. “I’m not going to get into, obviously, specifics here. We’ve been very clear that we are monitoring the situation very closely, but I’m not going to get into any specifics beyond that. What we’ve been very clear about, though, is that, as we said, any use or proliferation would be crossing a redline, and we would take necessary steps or actions.”

But Toner’s remarks and independent media reports suggested that the U.S. has received intelligence that Assad’s regime may resort to using chemical weapons after suffering recent setbacks as opposition forces have captured and retained more and more territories.

“As the opposition makes strategic advances and grows in the strength, the Assad regime has been unable to halt the opposition’s progress through conventional means, and we are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syria people,” explained White House spokesman Jay Carney. 

Carney also declined to comment on specific intelligence matters but stated that the U.S. believes the Assad regime holds possession of chemical weapons.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry has denied the chemical weapons accusations. However, the credibility of Syria’s denial was undermined by the defection of top Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi. (Al Jazeera could not independently verify Makdissi’s departure to London.)

Germany pioneered the use of chemical weapons – such as Mustard gas which causes painful blisters when exposed to skin and breathed into the lungs and can lead to blindness and death – during World War I.

It took nearly a century for the Chemical Weapons Convention to be enforced in most countries around the world. Although, Syria is one of the 7 countries that have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it did sign the 1925 Geneva Protocol which bars the use of chemical weapons.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the compliance of the Chemical Weapons Convention, announced that it is monitoring current developments in Syria with regard to concerns about chemical weapons”.

“The use or threat of use of chemical weapons is unacceptable,” the OPCW stated. “As a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Syria is obligated by international law not to use chemical weapons under any circumstances. The Syrian Government must also ensure the safety and security of any stocks of chemical weapons it may possess.”


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