- - Monday, July 23, 2012

ULUDERE, Turkey — Syrians fear embattled President Bashar Assad is planning to attack civilian opponents and armed rebels alike with chemical and biological weapons, human rights activists said Monday after Syria declared for the first time that its army has weapons of mass destruction.

“The whole population of Syria is afraid,” said Damascus-based activist Sami Ibrahim of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

“Now the regime is using helicopters like they are water pistols, shelling daily in Damascus. At the final stages when [Mr. Assad] feels he has nothing to lose, he could use chemical weapons.”

In the first acknowledgment of such weapons, the Syrian regime said it would be prepared to use them against foreign attackers, but insisted it would not use them against its own people.

“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,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in a news conference broadcast on Syrian state TV.

“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.”

The statement raised questions about the regime’s definition of “external aggression” as it continues to blame foreign extremists and terrorists for the rebellion, which has spread across the country over the past 17 months.

Chemical weapons thought to be in the Syrian regime’s possession include nerve agents as well as mustard gas and Scud missiles capable of delivering the lethal chemicals. The regime also holds a variety of advanced conventional arms, including anti-tank rockets and late-model portable anti-aircraft missiles.

Don’t even think about it

In Washington, the Obama administration warned Mr. Assad not to even consider using chemical or biological weapons.

“They should not think one iota about using chemical weapons,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.

“We have been very strong in our statements inside the U.S. government on the prospective use of chemical weapons, and it would be entirely unacceptable.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “It would be reprehensible if anybody in Syria is contemplating use of such weapons of mass destruction.”

Despite denials that the regime would use its weapons against its own people, Damascus-based activist Lena al-Shami of the Revolution Leadership Council said that reports this month of security forces being issued gas masks in a Damascus suburb triggered fear among residents that chemical weapons could be used against civilians.

“People are still afraid of this,” she said. “We are talking about this seriously.”

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