After months of resisting military involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war, President Obama on Monday issued a stern warning to Syrian leader Bashar Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own citizens.
The White House said recent actions by Mr. Assad’s government, and U.S. and allied intelligence reports detecting activity around more than one of Syria’s chemical weapons sites last week, are fueling worries that Mr. Assad would try to end his country’s civil war by unleashing such weapons on rebel forces.
Directing his statements to Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama asserted that the U.S. and other allies would not tolerate his use of chemical weapons.
“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,” Mr. Obama said during a nuclear-threat reduction symposium at the National Defense University. “If you made the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
The comments came as clashes between rebels and government forces near the Syrian capital of Damascus intensified Monday, forcing one inbound commercial jet to turn back.
Also Monday, the United Nations ordered its non-essential international staff to leave Syria because of increased violence and security threats around Damascus. In the past few weeks fighting in Syria, which have already taken 40,000 lives in 20 months of conflict, have been the most serious in the capital since July.
The political terrain also appears to be shifting with conflicting reports that the spokesman for Syria’s foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, flew from Beirut to London and was either fired or defected. Also on Monday, government officials in Turkey gathered in Istanbul with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, focused on the Syrian crisis.
White House spokesman Jay Carney earlier Monday warned that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” for the United States, a sentiment Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had expressed the same day in Prague.
With Mr. Assad’s regime growing increasingly beleaguered and desperate, Mr. Carney voiced concern that the Syrian leader would consider using those weapons as a last-ditch attempt to regain control of the country.
“We do believe that with the regime’s grip on power loosening, with its failure to put down the opposition through conventional means, we have an increased concern about the possibility of the regime taking the desperate act of using its chemical weapons,” Mr. Carney said.
While visiting the capital of the Czech Republic, Mrs. Clinton said she didn’t want to “telegraph” the specifics of how the U.S. would react to a chemical attack in Syria.
“Suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur,” she said.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish and Shiite populations was one factor, among others, used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Syria has tried to quell international fears that it would use chemical weapons against its own people, even as it carefully avoided saying whether it has any on hand. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement Monday via state television that Syria “would not use chemical weapons — if there are any — against its own people under any circumstances.”
The Syrian government has long denied possessing chemical weapons, but the U.S. and its allies believe it has stockpiles or has the components to reconstitute active chemical weapons quickly.