By Jonathan S. Landay and Hannah Allam, McClatchy Newspapers –
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama warned the embattled leader of war-torn Syria on Monday not to use chemical weapons against rebels fighting to topple his regime, as the United States voiced rising concern that he may be preparing to do so and consulted with regional allies on a range of responses.
Obama’s admonition to Syrian President Bashar Assad was his most strident since he drew a “red line” in August that the movement of chemical or biological weapons out of their secure sites, or their use, would bring U.S. military intervention in the country’s vicious civil war.
His latest comments came shortly after the White House spoke of growing worries that Assad could be preparing to use chemical weapons against rebel forces that have been gaining ground in northern and eastern Syria, and have staged attacks in the capital, Damascus, which compelled the closure of the international airport.
Administration officials, however, offered no public evidence justifying their heightened fears, citing classified intelligence.
“This is not just analytic conjecture. It is firm information,” insisted a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. “We’re wary about indications we’ve seen that the Syrian regime may be in the midst of preparing chemical weapons for possible use.”
Obama aimed his warning directly at Assad and his top lieutenants in a speech to a non-proliferation symposium at the National Defense University
“And today, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. 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,” he said, without elaborating.
Obama’s warning echoed comments issued earlier in the day by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and by spokesmen for the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department.
“As the opposition makes strategic advances, and grows in strength, the Assad regime has been unable to halt the opposition’s progress through conventional means,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “And we are concerned that in an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”
Carney indicated that the United States is preparing military options, saying that “contingency planning of all kinds is the responsible thing to do.” Washington also is consulting with its regional allies and Syrian opposition groups, he said.
An independent expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, quoted a U.S. official as telling him that “contingency planning” under way in Washington and with regional allies included “disaster mitigation,” a term that means dealing with the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack.
Syria is believed to maintain stockpiles comprising unknown quantities of biological weapons and hundreds of tons of chemical weapons.
Speaking in Prague, Clinton declined to discuss the U.S. response should Assad use chemical weapons.
U.S. officials have been monitoring Syria’s stockpiles since the civil war erupted after Assad’s security forces and gangs of loyalist thugs used force against peaceful protests that erupted in January 2011 calling for an end to four decades of Assad family rule.
More than 40,000 people — most of them civilians — are estimated to have died in the fighting that has leveled whole city blocks and pits rebels mostly comprising Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims against forces and militias led by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim offshoot.
The United States, Israel, Turkey and Arab governments are worried that chemical or biological weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants fighting on the rebel side. The extremist groups include Jabhat al Nusra, which has played a substantial role in the rebels’ recent advances, and which U.S. officials call an “al-Qaida front.”
“We’re all in agreement that should these weapons pose a threat to start with, or be used, or fall into the wrong hands, this is a game changer,” a senior Arab official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity, as per diplomatic protocol.