Published: July 23, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian officials warned Monday that they would deploy chemical weapons against any foreign intervention, a threat that appeared intended to ward off an attack by Western nations while also offering what officials in Washington called the most “direct confirmation” ever that Syria possesses a stockpile of unconventional armaments.
Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Syrian opposition fighters looked for snipers on Monday, after attacking a municipal building in Selehattin, near Aleppo.
Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, reading a statement on the country’s chemical stockpiles at a news conference in Damascus on Monday.
The warning came out of Damascus, veiled behind an assurance that the Syrian leadership would never use such weapons against its own citizens, describing chemical and biological arms as outside the bounds of the kind of guerrilla warfare being fought internally.
“Any stock of W.M.D. or unconventional weapons that the Syrian Army possesses will never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said at a news conference shown live on Syrian state television, using the initials for weapons of mass destruction. “These weapons are made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”
Mr. Makdissi said that any such weapons were carefully monitored by the Syrian Army, and that ultimately their use would be decided by generals.
Though it has for many years been an open secret that Syria possessed a large cache of such weapons, the government has traditionally tried to retain some strategic ambiguity to keep its enemies guessing. Then on Monday, after Mr. Makdissi appeared to confirm that reality, the government quickly retreated to its familiar position, saying its remarks were misinterpreted.
Asked whether Syria was finally acknowledging that it had chemical weapons, Mr. Makdissi repeated roughly the same response, but began it by saying that any stock of unconventional weapons or chemical weapons “if they exist” would not be used domestically, but would be used against foreign intervention.
But the attempt at verbal sleight of hand did little to conceal what appeared to be Syria’s intent, experts and Western diplomats said.
“Look, any talk about any use of any kind of a weapon like that in this situation is horrific and chilling,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman. “The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons. And that kind of loose talk just speaks to the kind of regime that we’re talking about.”
For outside experts, any remarks about chemical weapons meant that Syria calculated the value of reminding anyone weighing any direct military intervention just what it could hit them with.
“The thing about W.M.D. is that they are useless unless the other side knows you have them,” said Joseph Holliday, an Iraq war veteran who tracks the opposition Free Syrian Army for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “So despite the fact that the regime has not been open about its weapons program, it has to make it clear to neighbors that it has the capability, so it has to be relatively public.”
Analysts dismissed the idea that any part of what Mr. Makdissi said, including the second statement, was anything less than calculated. The statements, coupled with recent information that Syria has been moving its chemical weapons around the country, were part of the calculation, said Randa Slim, an adjunct research fellow and Syria expert at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute based in Washington.
Syria is simultaneously trying to break its international isolation and to make the United States, Turkey and Israel, among others, rethink any offensive action they might be contemplating against it, she said. “The chemical weapons remain one of the Syrian regime’s strongest few trump cards, and they are threatening to use it in order to improve their rapidly weakening negotiating position.”
In ruling out their domestic use, Mr. Makdissi said Syria was facing “gang warfare” in its main cities where the weapons could not be used. Fierce street fighting continued in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, for a fifth day on Monday, while government troops maintained a mopping-up operation in and around Damascus.
Over the past four decades, Syria has amassed huge supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide, according to unclassified reports by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In a report to Congress covering last year, the C.I.A., referring to chemical weapons, said, “Syria has had a C.W. program for many years and has a stockpile of C.W. agents, which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets. We assess that Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its C.W. program, including precursor chemicals.”
In a similar report for 2006, the C.I.A. said Syria’s arsenal included “the nerve agent sarin, which can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missile.” The report also said that Syria “is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX.”
Syria has long left deliberately ambiguous what exactly it possesses in terms of chemical weapons, with government leaders only rarely discussing them. A United Nations diplomat said that in a meeting this month with Kofi Annan, the special envoy for Syria and former United Nations secretary general, President Bashar al-Assad had also said that any chemical weapons were stored in a safe place.
Mr. Assad also told Mr. Annan that they would not be used except in the case of foreign invasion, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the topic. The Syrian leader had said that the weapons had not been mixed yet, so that anyone who captured them would have to know how to combine them. The weapons are considered “binary,” meaning that they do not become lethal until they are mixed.
Israel employs a similar ambiguity about its nuclear arsenal — usually stating it will not be the first to deploy nuclear weapons in the Middle East — which is believed to have inspired the Syrian stance. Syria and Israel are also among only eight countries in the world who have not agreed to the convention to eliminate chemical weapons that went into effect in 1997. (Israel has signed it but not ratified it.)
Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California, said the Syrian spokesman’s comments were paradoxically both menacing and reassuring.
“It’s a mixed message,” Mr. Spector said in a telephone interview. “One side of the message is fist-shaking, a warning of retaliation if there’s an invasion. The other side seems to be an attempt to be responsible.”
Neil MacFarquhar reported from Beirut, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 23, 2012
An earlier version of this article incorrectly rendered part of a statement by the Syrian government. The statement said that chemical weapons would be used only in case of “external aggression,” not “exterior aggression.”