DUBAI: Is Syrian President Bashar Al Assad desperate enough to use chemical weapons on his own people? Or are claims that the weapons are being mixed and readied for use on aircraft a ploy to lay the groundwork for full-scale military intervention in Syria?
Only top officials and the regime’s closest officials in the presidential palace in Damascus know the true answer and intent. But the reality is that the threat of chemical weapons — on questionable intelligence reports delivered dramatically by Colin Powell to the UN — was enough to spur the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama issued an explicit warning to President Al Assad on using chemical weapons — coinciding with press reports from an unnamed US official that the Syrian regime had begun mixing the chemicals required to make sarin nerve gas.
Within some 24 hours a second, different official was quoted by NBC News as insisting that there was in fact no evidence that the Syrian military had begun to mix the precursor chemicals needed to produce the deadly nerve agent.
So what is going on? Are the reports of chemical weapons simply a ruse to push an end to the conflict by western intervention?
Without access to the intelligence data it is almost impossible to say. But the fears coincide with deployment of a German detachment of Patriot missiles to Turkey’s border with Syria.
In Dublin, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for talks. They came amid growing concern that the 21-month conflict in Syria is entering its final stage.
“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate [Al] Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Clinton said earlier in Brussels at a Nato meeting.
A senior Damascus official, however, is accusing the US and Europe of using the issue of chemical weapons to justify a future military intervention against Syria.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned yesterday that any such intervention would be “catastrophic”.
Syria has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people. Mekdad says Syria would never use chemical weapons — even if it had them — against its own people, calling it “suicide”. He spoke in an interview with Lebanon’s Al Manar TV.
Syria is believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent.
With a steady flow of arms from foreign supporters in the region and weapons seized from overtaken Al Assad arsenals, rebel forces have scored impressive recent gains, clearing government troops from the border with Turkey and scoring tactical victories in the suburbs of Damascus.
“It is bloody and long,” one senior French official said. “But my feeling is there has been an acceleration of dynamics in the last few weeks, an erosion of the regime while the morale of the activists is higher and higher. I believe it is now possible the regime will fall soon,. Whether that is weeks or months, I don’t know.”
The growth of extremist factions within the rebel ranks has increased the urgency of developing a political alternative to match opposition military gains, according to the French official and others, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“This is a real concern for the United States, for France and for the Syrians themselves,” the French official said. “The quicker the fall of the regime and the stronger the political alternative, the more you empower it ... the more likely that Syrians themselves will be able to resist radicalisation.”
But if the end is near for Al Assad, would he stoop to using chemical weapons on a last desperate bid to cling to power or last defiant act.
The Obama administration is aware that several countries in the Middle East and elsewhere — Venezuela has been floated — have informally offered to grant asylum to Al Assad and his family if they leave Syria.
But any use of chemicals would end that hope of asylum, with the regime being treated as a pariah.
Administration officials also said they were continuing to encourage those close to Al Assad to defect and said they believed that Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, who disappeared this week, is currently in London.
“Now that there is a new opposition formed, we are going to be doing what we can to support that opposition,” Clinton said.
Washington has so far provided humanitarian, non-lethal aid to the rebels, but officially declined to arm the opposition.
Clinton also warned Damascus again that any use of chemical weapons against rebel forces was a clear red line that must not be crossed.
According to NBC, the Syrian regime has prepared aerial bombs loaded with deadly nerve gas that could be dropped on Syrian rebel strongholds, NBC reported on Wednesday.
The Syrian military is awaiting final orders from Al Assad, unidentified US officials told NBC News. Officials said on Tuesday there was no evidence that the process of mixing the two chemicals that together make sarin gas had started, but on Wednesday the nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.
Sarin is a deadly agent that can kill tens of thousands of people within minutes if released in a densely populated area.
The US officials quoted by NBC stressed that the sarin bombs had not been loaded on to planes. One of the officials said if he were to do so, “there’s little the outside world can do to stop it.”
“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons or might lose control of them to one of the many groups now operating in Syria,” she told reporters.
CNN reported that the Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish intelligence services were in close contact with their US counterparts to decide on the next steps.
The Syrian government, fighting to prevent the capital Damascus from falling to rebel forces, has insisted it would never resort to chemical weapons.
CNN also says Damascus could use the gas in a limited artillery attack on advancing rebels.
— with inputs from agencies