December 3, 2012

US official: Syria moving chemical weapons components

Secretary of State Clinton reiterats President Obama's declaration that Syrian action on chemical weapons was a "red line" for the United States that would prompt action.

Bradley Klapper and Pauline Jelinek / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — U.S. and allied intelligence have detected Syrian movement of chemical weapons components in recent days, a senior U.S. defense official said Monday, as the Obama administration strongly warned the Assad regime against using them.

A senior defense official said intelligence officials have detected activity around more than one of Syria's chemical weapons sites in the last week. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about intelligence matters.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, reiterated President Barack Obama's declaration that Syrian action on chemical weapons was a "red line" for the United States that would prompt action.

"We have made our views very clear: This is a red line for the United States," Clinton told reporters. "I'm not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur."

Syria said Monday it would not use chemical weapons against its own people. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Syria "would not use chemical weapons — if there are any — against its own people under any circumstances."

Syria has been careful never to confirm that it has any chemical weapons.

The use of chemical weapons would be a major escalation in Assad's crackdown on his foes and would draw international condemnation. In addition to causing mass deaths and horrific injuries to survivors, the regime's willingness to use them would alarm much of the region, particularly neighboring states, including Israel.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said, "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. And as the president has said, any use or proliferation of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cross a red line for the United States. "

Administration officials would not detail what that response might be.

Although Syria is one of only seven nations that have not signed the Chemical Weapons Treaty, it is a party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol that bans the use of chemical weapons in war. That treaty was signed in the aftermath of World War I, when the effects of the use of mustard gas and other chemical agents outraged much of the world.

Clinton didn't address the issue of the fresh activity at Syrian chemical weapons depots, but insisted that Washington would address any threat that arises.

An administration official said the trigger for U.S. action of some kind is the use of chemical weapons or movement with the intent to use or provide them to a terrorist group like Hezbollah. The U.S. is trying to determine whether the recent movement detected in Syria falls into any of those categories, the official said. The administration official was speaking on condition of anonymity this person was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

The senior defense official said the U.S. does not believe that any Syrian action beyond the movement of components is imminent.

An Israeli official said if there is real movement on chemical weapons, it would require a response. He didn't say what that might be and spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal government response to the reports of the latest activities.

Israeli officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that Syrian chemical weapons could slip into the hands of Hezbollah or other anti-Israel groups, or even be fired toward Israel in an act of desperation by Syria.

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