US warns Syria against using chemical weapons
White House discusses 'military options' amid fears regime may be preparing biological weapons for use against rebel forces in conflict
Agencies in Washington
The White House and its allies are weighing military options to secure Syria's chemical and biological weapons, after intelligence reports showed the Syrian regime may be readying the arms and may be desperate enough to use them against rebels, US officials said.
One US official said Monday that Syria had begun mixing chemicals that might be used to make deadly sarin gas.
"We've picked up several indications which lead us to believe that they're combining chemical precursors," the official said, on condition of anonymity, adding that the operation was apparently aimed at making the potent nerve agent.
Amid the increasing chatter, US President Barack Obama, in a speech at the National Defence University on Monday, pointedly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use his arsenal.
"Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: the world is watching," Obama said. "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."
Nato joined Washington in delivering a blunt warning against any use of chemical weapons.
"The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable to the whole international community and I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community," Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, said she would not outline any specifics, but added: "… suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur".
Options now being considered range from aerial strikes to limited raids by regional forces to secure the stockpiles, according to two US officials.
Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles were "a matter of great concern," Rasmussen said, adding: "This is also the reason why it is a matter of urgency to ensure effective defence and protection of our ally Turkey."
Nato foreign ministers are expected to approve Turkey's request for Patriot anti-missile systems.
Germany and the Netherlands are expected to provide to Turkey several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the US-built Patriot air defence system, which is optimised to intercept incoming missiles, with the US possibly sending some from its stocks in Europe.
Turkey's request is worrying Russia, but both Nato and Ankara insist they would be purely defensive.
The Obama administration remains reluctant to dispatch US forces into Syria, but a US special operations training team is in neighbouring Jordan, teaching troops how to safely secure such sites together with other soldiers from the region, the officials said.
The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government "would not use chemical weapons — if there are any — against its own people under any circumstances." The regime is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war.
Washington fears battlefield advances by rebels could prompt Assad to use chemical arms, or that stocks could become insecure or find their way into the hands of groups hostile to the United States and its allies.
Associated Press and Agence France-Presse