U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday warned his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad against using chemical weapons on rebels attempting to topple his regime in the restive Middle East nation.
In a speech at the National Defense University in Fort McNair on nuclear non-proliferation, Obama stressed that Assad would face dire "consequences" if he chose to use chemical weapons against his own people.
"The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable," he said. "We've worked to keep weapons from spreading, whether it was nuclear material in Libya or chemical weapons in Syria."
"We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worse weapons of the 20th century. And today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and anyone who is under his command... If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," Obama warned.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a joint press conference with Czech Prime Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in Prague that the U.S. was "certainly planning to take action" if it got credible evidence that the Assad regime had resorted to using chemical weapons against its own people.
Clinton also reiterated Washington's "very strong warning to the Assad regime that their behavior is reprehensible. Their actions against their own people have been tragic. But there is no doubt that there is a line between even the horrors that they have already inflicted on the Syrian people and moving to what would be an internationally condemned step of utilizing their chemical weapons."
An estimated 35,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria since an armed rebellion against the Assad regime began in March 2011. The conflict, now viewed as a civil war by most of the international community, has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to take refuge in neighboring Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. It is now threatening to spill over to neighboring countries and is increasingly becoming sectarian in nature.
There has been considerable concern that Syria's chemical weapons could fall into hostile hands, particularly Islamist insurgents fighting the government, or be used to defend the regime. In July, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had voiced concerns about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, and urged the international community to ensure that no such weapons were used in the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian regime dismissed Ban's concerns over its chemical and biological weapons stockpile, and said that it would use such destructive weapons only against external aggression. Insisting that such weapons will not be used against its own citizens, the regime stressed that the weapon stocks were secure.
Media reports said on Monday that the latest U.S. reaction was apparently prompted by intelligence reports suggesting that the Syrian regime was actively considering the use of chemical weapons against the rebels, who appear to be making steady progress against the Syrian military in the ongoing conflict.
Exact volumes of chemical weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not yet known. Nevertheless, the CIA has reportedly estimated that Syria has several hundred liters of chemical weapons, with hundreds of tons being produced annually.
Besides, Syria is not a party to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by states.
But, the Syrian government on Monday denied any plans to use chemical weapons in the conflict, with state television quoting a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying: "Syria confirms repeatedly it will never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons against its own people, if such weapons exist."
Notably, Turkey had formally requested the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) last month to deploy Patriot anti-missile systems along its border with the Syria, after several Syrian shells landed inside Turkey. Five Turkish citizens were killed in the Syrian cross-border mortar firing, prompting Ankara to carry out several cross-border artillery strikes on targets inside Syria.
Turkish media quoted defense officials as saying on Sunday that the request for deploying NATO Patriot missiles was triggered by intelligence reports indicating that the Syrian regime was contemplating using chemical weapons in the conflict.
Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Monday that the planned deployment of Patriot missiles would "exacerbate" rather than "defuse" tensions between the two nations.
Although Turkey and Syria maintained close ties until recently, their relations began deteriorating over Ankara's strong criticism of the Syrian regime over its continued crackdowns on dissidents and anti-government protesters.
Further, Turkey has been sheltering Syrian dissidents fleeing security crackdowns at home. But Damascus alleges that the Syrian Army deserters are using Turkey as a base for launching attacks on Syrian military installations.
Continued efforts by the international community to find a solution to the Syrian crisis have been hampered by a deep divide in the U.N. Security Council, with Russia and China backing the Assad regime and the West as well as its Arab allies and Turkey opposing it.
by RTT Staff Writer
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