WASHINGTON — The White House and its allies are weighing military options to secure Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, after U.S. intelligence reports show the Syrian regime may be readying those weapons and may be desperate enough to use them, U.S. officials said Monday.
President Barack Obama, in a speech at the National Defense University on Monday, pointedly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use the weapons.
“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Obama said. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, said she wouldn’t outline any specifics.
“But suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur,” Clinton said.
Options now being considered range from aerial strikes to limited raids by regional forces to secure the stockpiles, according to one current U.S. official, and one former U.S. official, briefed on the matter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The administration remains reluctant to dispatch U.S. forces into Syria, but a U.S. special operations training team is in neighboring Jordan, teaching troops there how to safely secure such sites together with other troops from the region, the officials said.
The warnings come after U.S. intelligence detected signs the Syrian regime was moving the chemical weapons components around within several of Syria’s chemical weapons sites in recent days, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials speaking on Monday. Two officials said the activities did not involve movement of components in or out of various sites, but the movement was confined to within the individual locations.
One of the officials said they were seeing activities they had not seen before that bear further scrutiny.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about intelligence matters.
According to another senior U.S. official, the U.S. is worried about “indications of preparations” for a possible use of the chemical weapons. The U.S. still doesn’t know whether the regime is planning to use them, but the official says there is greater concern because there is the sense that the Assad regime is under greater pressure now.
U.N. pulling staff from Syria
BEIRUT — Fighting between rebels and government forces raged near the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday, forcing an inbound commercial jet to turn back while the U.N. said it was withdrawing staff because of deteriorating security conditions.
Lebanese security officials said Jihad Makdissi, a polished Foreign Ministry spokesman known for defending the regime of President Bashar Assad in fluent English, flew from Beirut to London. But it was not immediately clear whether he had defected.
The fighting over the past few weeks in and around Damascus has been the most serious in the capital since July, when rebels captured several neighborhoods before a swift government counteroffensive swept them out. The spike in violence recently is concentrated in the ring of mostly poor suburbs around Damascus but often bleeds into the capital itself as rebels bring their fight closer to Assad’s seat of power. Assad’s forces have so far repelled major rebel advances on the capital, though their hold may be slipping.
“The security situation has become extremely difficult, including in Damascus,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.
— The Associated Press