Syria chemical weapons warning- threat or reassurance?
West condemns threat to use WMD against foreign forces: 'the world is watching' says Obama
THE SYRIAN government has admitted for the first time that it has chemical weapons, warning that while it would never use them against its own people, it would use them against an external threat.
Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi (pictured) said at a news conference yesterday: "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.
"All of these weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian military and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."
Belatedly realising the diplomatic faux-pas in owning up to the existence of Syrian chemical weapons, Makdissi later repeated his earlier statement but added the words, "if they exist".
Politicians around the world condemned the implicit threat in Makdissi's comments to use chemical weapons against foreign forces.
Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said the threat was "unacceptable", adding: "This is typical of the complete illusion of this regime, that they are the victims of external aggression.
"What is actually happening is their own people are rising up against a brutal police state... and in any case it is unacceptable to say that they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances."
US President Barack Obama warned Syria against using its chemical arsenal. "Given the regime's stockpile of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching," he said.
"They will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons."
The Syrian government later said Makdissi's words had been taken out of context and Makdissi himself reportedly took to Twitter to deny that Syria even had chemical weapons.
But despite the apparent confusion some analysts are certain that the statement was calculated to make Western powers think twice about the consequences of intervention.
Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington told The New York Times: "The thing about WMD is that they are useless unless the other side knows you have them.
"So despite the fact that the regime has not been open about its weapons programme, it has to make it clear to neighbours that it has the capability, so it has to be relatively public."
Makdissi's words could also be calculated to play on the fears of the US and Israel that a post-Assad power vacuum could see Syria's WMD stockpile fall into the hands of al-Qaeda.
As The Week reported last week, Israel appears confident that Syria's chemical weapons are in safe hands and being looked after by a dedicated army unit.
Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told the Financial Times: "The important message is that it is only us that can secure and safeguard these things - don't push us too far, we're responsible when it comes to the one thing you're most worried about."