The White House issued a stark warning that it feared President Bashar al-Assad might be turning to his arsenal of chemical weapons as a report emerged claiming the regime has already begun mixing the chemicals to make deadly sarin gas.
On a day of turmoil in which a high-ranking Assad spokesman defected, and the United Nations announced it was withdrawing all non-essential personnel in Syria, American defence officials confirmed that activity had been reported at the regime’s known chemical sites, including movements of weapons components.
Although previous activity has been reported, it was seen then as the regime seeking to secure stocks against possible rebel attack.
This time, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, went further. “We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime may be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” he said.
This evening, AFP news agency quoted an unnamed US official who claimed the regime has already begun mixing the chemicals that can be used to make deadly sarin gas.
“We’ve picked up several indications which lead us to believe that they’re combining chemical precursors,” AFP quoted the official as saying, adding that the operation was apparently aimed at making sarin.
Sarin, used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1990s, is a man-made nerve agent which can cause convulsions, respiratory failure and death.
The Syrian regime has never overtly admitted having chemical weapons, though it is believed by western analysts to have the biggest stocks in the Middle East. It has also denied it would ever use chemical weapons against its own people, a denial it reiterated yesterday.
“Syria confirms repeatedly it will never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons against its own people, if such weapons exist,” an official said.
But Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, responded to growing alarm, including from Syria’s neighbour Turkey, over the chemical weapons reports by saying that this would change America’s policy towards the war.
“We have made our views very clear: this is a red line for the United States,” she said. “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.”
In a further sign of impending chaos, the United Nations announced that non-essential foreign staff were being withdrawn from the country and trips outside Damascus halted. “The security situation has become extremely difficult, including in Damascus,” Radhouane Nouicer, the regional humanitarian coordinator, said.
The European Union also announced that its delegation in Damascus was reducing activities to a minimum level due to security concerns.
The United States and its western allies have refused to back the rebels militarily or answer requests to impose a no-fly zone. But they are getting closer to allow arms supplies, with the European Union due to review its arms embargo in three months.
Nato is also today likely to approve stationing Patriot missile interceptors on the Turkish border with Syria, a response to Turkish conerns that the Assad regime might turn to ballistic missiles, perhaps tipped with chemical weapons, to deploy against the rebels. It wants to be able to shoot down any missiles that cross its own borders, deliberately or accidentally.
There are signs of desperation inside the regime as it fails to dislodge rebels from the southern suburbs of its own capital, Damascus.
Syria’s air force has been bombing rebel-held districts, but it has been unable to fully secure the airport and airport road. Although the airport reopened at the weekend, an Egyptair plane from Cairo was turned back on Monday afternoon after being informed security was not assured.
The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, said in an interview with AFP news agency yesterday that he thought the Assad regime could collapse “at any time”.
“Facts on the ground indicate very clearly now that the Syrian opposition is gaining, politically and militarily,” he said. “Every day they are gaining something.”
In a sign of internal weaknes, Jihad Makdessi, the chief foreign ministry spokesman, was reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights to have defected and boarded a plane for London from Beirut airport.
He was earlier said by a Lebanese television station close to Hizbollah to have been sacked for deviating in his statements from government policy. Mr Makdessi was previously the press secretary at Syria’s London embassy, and has been one of the main defenders of the regime not only on television but on social media such as Twitter.