December 18, 2012

Syria worried that extremists will use chemical weapons, frame government

U.S. intelligence, however, describes Syria as readying its supplies and desperate enough to use them.

By EDITH M. LEDERER/The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS — Syria's U.N. ambassador is warning that extremist groups could use chemical weapons against the Syrian people and blame the government.

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A Syrian man chops wood at a refugee camp in Azaz, Syria, on Monday. Thousands of Syrians who fled their homes due to fighting face cold weather as temperatures dropped to 36 degrees Fahrenheit in Azaz.

The Associated Press

IRAN APPEARS TO COOL TOWARD ASSAD, OFFERS PEACE PLAN

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It wasn’t exactly a break-up moment between Iran and ally Bashar Assad. But Tehran’s whiplash diplomacy over the weekend suggested its embrace of the Syrian president could be cooling.

Just a day after Iran’s foreign minister pledged unwavering support for the embattled Assad, officials in Tehran outlined on Sunday a step-by-step peace plan for Syria capped by elections that presumably could usher in a new leader in Damascus.

It was another possible sign of Assad’s fraying alliances after similar mixed messages last week from Russia, which tried to backpedal after a top diplomat said Assad is losing control of his country.

The Iranian initiative proposed Sunday – while almost certain to be rejected by Syrian rebel factions – marks some of the clearest signals that Tehran’s leadership is looking to hedge its bets and remain a player in Syrian affairs if Assad falls.

Bashar Ja'afari reiterated in letters, circulated Monday, to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the Syrian government is "genuinely worried" that foreign countries could provide chemical weapons to armed groups "and then claim they had been used by the Syrian government."

Although the West has shown little desire to intervene in Syria, President Obama has said the regime's use of chemical weapons against the rebels would be a "red line" and change his "calculus" about a conflict.

As the prospect of intervention gains traction, the Syrian government has been careful to never actually confirm it has chemical weapons and is instead trying to raise fears it may be framed by rebels using such weapons to spur an outside attack.

Recent U.S. intelligence reports, however, showed the Syrian regime may be readying its chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them.

Ja'afari in his letter reiterated that "Syria will not under any circumstances use any chemical weapons that it may have."

He said instead the Syrian government is defending its people "from terrorists backed by well-known states, at the forefront of which is the United States of America." The Syrian regime and state media refer to rebels fighting to oust the government of President Bashar Assad as terrorists.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council on Monday that the U.N. is sending in kits to protect soldiers in the U.N. peacekeeping force on Syria's border with Israel from the effects of a possible chemical attack.

He said the United Nations doesn't have the ability to verify reports by a number of countries that Syria possesses and might use chemical weapons. But "we don't want to take a risk," Ladsous said.

The Syria uprising started in March 2011 as peaceful protests but quickly turned into a civil war after the government's brutal crackdown on dissent. Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed.

On Sunday, fighter jets screamed over Damascus to bomb two areas in the southern part of the capital. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets carried out six air strikes in the Hajar Aswad area and the neighboring Yarmouk Palestinian camp, where the rebels have been advancing.

The attacks killed at least 25 people.

 

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