- Associated Press - Monday, July 23, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian regime threatened Monday to use its chemical and biological weapons in case of a foreign attack, in its first ever acknowledgement that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stressed, however, that Damascus would not use its unconventional arms against its own citizens. The announcement comes as Syria faces international isolation, a tenacious rebellion that has left at least 19,000 people dead and threats by Israel to invade to prevent such weapons from falling into rebel hands.

Syria’s decision to reveal the long suspected existence of its chemical weapons suggests a desperate regime deeply shaken by an increasingly bold revolt that has scored a string of successes in the past week, including a stunning bomb attack that killed four high-level security officials, the capture of several border crossings and sustained offensives on the regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo.

“No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria,” Makdissi said in news conference broadcast on Syrian state TV. “All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.”

While the statement Makdissi read out promised not to use the weapons against the Syrian people, he later noted that Damascus is not facing an internal enemy in the rebellion, which the regime has described as being funded from abroad and driven by foreign extremists.

He added that there was a foreign political and media campaign “that seeks to justify and prepare international public opinion for military intervention under the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction.”

Syria is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas, Scud missiles capable of delivering these lethal chemicals and a variety of advanced conventional arms, including anti-tank rockets and late-model portable anti-aircraft missiles.

Israel has said it fears that chaos following Assad’s fall could allow the Jewish state’s enemies to access Syria’s chemical weapons, and has not ruled out military intervention to prevent this from happening.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said Friday the Syrians have moved chemical weapons material from the country’s north, where the fighting was fiercest, apparently to both secure it, and to consolidate it, which U.S. officials considered a responsible step.

But there has also been a disturbing rise in activity at the installations, so the U.S. intelligence community is intensifying its monitoring efforts to track the weapons and try to figure out whether the Syrians are trying to use them, the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the still-evolving investigation.

Makdissi did not discuss last week’s bombing claimed by the rebels that killed four top Syrian security officials, but assured journalists that the situation was under control, despite reports of clashes throughout the country and especially in the major cities of Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

“Yes, there were clashes on certain streets in certain neighborhoods, but the security situation is now much better. Everyone is feeling reassured,” he said. “We are not happy about this, but this is an emergency situation and it will not last more than a day or two and the situation will return to normal.”

Security forces appeared to show more government control in videos posted online by activists Monday. Some of the clips show Syrian militia sweeping through Damascus neighborhoods once held by rebels, kicking down doors and searching houses in mop up operations against the fighters that had managed to hold parts of the capital for much of last week.

It was a different story in Aleppo, however, where the Britain-based Syria Observatory reported fierce fighting in a string of neighborhoods, including Sakhour and Hanano, in the northeast of Syria’s largest city.

Several videos posted by activists showed rebels battling regime tanks in the narrow streets of Sakhour. In one case, a tank on fire rumbles past after being hit by rebels as a man escapes from the flaming turret. Other videos showed cheering rebels celebrating around destroyed tanks, even driving around one they had captured.

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