Last Updated: Tue Jul 24, 2012 07:17 am (KSA) 04:17 am (GMT)

Obama warns Assad over chemical weapons as U.S. shifts focus to aiding opposition

U.S. President Barack Obama said that the Syrian regime would be held accountable if it made the “tragic mistake” of using his stockpile of chemical weapons. (Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama said that the Syrian regime would be held accountable if it made the “tragic mistake” of using his stockpile of chemical weapons. (Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama said late Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be held accountable if he made the “tragic mistake” of using his stockpile of chemical weapons.

“Today we’re also working so that the Syrian people can have a better future, free of the Assad regime,” Obama said in a speech on his foreign policy to veterans in Reno, Nevada, according to Reuters.

Assad’s beleaguered regime had earlier threatened to use such weapons if Syria faced international military intervention, although it vowed not to turn them against its own civilians.

“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,” he said.

Syrian National Council chief Abdul Basset Seyda told Al Arabiya that the regime of President Assad now knows that it is in a critical situation. “This is reflected in the contradictory statements regarding the chemical weapons,” he said, pointing out that the agreement reached by the Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League should be applied to force Assad to leave.

Earlier, Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi had warned Syria could use chemical weapons if attacked by outsiders, although he back-tracked later to clarify that he was not confirming Damascus has such arms.

“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, AFP reported.

16-month-long conflict

Syria is in the grip of a 16-month-long conflict triggered by Assad’s brutal repression of a pro-democracy revolt. Western and Arab powers have called for him to step down and allow an orderly transition of power.

U.S. officials also demanded that the Assad regime act responsibly and safeguard any such unconventional arms.

Denouncing Makdissi’s words as “horrific and chilling,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “that any possible use of these kinds of weapons would be completely unacceptable.”

“The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons,” she insisted to reporters.

“That kind of loose talk just speaks to the kind of regime that we’re talking about.”

Pentagon press secretary George Little also warned Syria: “They should not think one iota about using chemical weapons.”

Nuland said Washington was working with its allies to monitor the situation but refused to detail what kind of chemical weapons the Syrians might have in their arsenal, saying she could not discuss intelligence matters.

Israel has also stepped up the rhetoric against Syria, warning it could take military action if any of its advanced weapons end up in the hands of Hezbollah.

Nuland said the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons was among topics discussed earlier in July during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Israel.

“Like all countries in the neighborhood, it makes sense for there to be prudent planning for self-defense,” she said when asked about Israel’s threat of military action.

Shifting focus from diplomacy to aiding opposition

The Obama administration, shifting its focus away from deadlocked U.N. diplomacy over Syria, is now seeking ways to further bolster Syrian rebel forces, including increased supplies of communications equipment and sharing of intelligence, U.S. sources said on Monday.

The stepped-up U.S. effort to assist the fractious Syrian opposition comes as Washington turns to like-minded Western and Arab countries to help ratchet up pressure on Assad, whose vulnerability was laid bare last week with a deadly bomb attack on his inner circle.

That bold attack, together with rebel offensives in Syria’s two biggest cities and a double-veto of a Syria sanctions resolution at the United Nations, has spurred U.S. officials to intensify contingency planning for Assad's possible fall from power.

Though aides to Obama are not ready to predict how long Assad can stay in power, they are struggling to devise an endgame that would safeguard Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and prevent the breakup of the country along sectarian lines.

U.S. officials insist that they have no plans for now to send lethal weapons to Syria’s rebels, a step the White House has publicly ruled out.

But Washington is preparing to provide additional communications equipment and training to help the opposition improve its command-and-control capabilities for coordinating their fighters.

“We want to support them becoming more cohesive, both in terms of their ability to put together a common vision but also their ability to communicate and be in touch with one another,” a senior U.S. official told Reuters.

While Washington remains concerned about the role of Islamist militants in the anti-Assad insurgency, there are also signs that some intelligence on Assad’s troop movements was starting to be fed to rebel groups. Details of such intelligence sharing could not be learned.

“The policy’s moved a little bit,” said one source with knowledge of White House policymaking on Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re not doing anything lethal, but we’re assisting more.”

Bolstering the rebels, comprised of many different factions, and nudging them into a more cohesive force will be a tough challenge.

The rebels have become better organized and more mobile in recent weeks, but Assad's forces, with superior firepower, have managed to reverse some of the opposition’s gains.

With the impasse at the United Nations due to Russia’s and China’s decision to shield Assad from further sanctions, the Obama administration is turning to the “Friends of Syria” grouping of allied countries to find ways to work with the Syrian opposition to further squeeze Assad’s government.

“That center of gravity shifts to the Friends of Syria effort,” the senior administration official said. “We still think Assad is going to be out of power and we still think there needs to be a plan for what happens next.”

The official said Washington was pressing opposition politicians to devise an “inclusive” transition plan that would prevent the “day-after Assad” from descending into a sectarian civil war.

Some analysts say Syria could end being torn apart into sectarian cantons with Kurds in the north, Assad’s Alawites along the coast, Druze in the southern hills and Sunnis elsewhere. The conflict, they say, could further destabilize Syria’s neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

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