THE United States has intelligence which raises “serious concerns” that Syria is considering employing chemical weapons in its war with rebel forces, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says.
“I think there is no question that we remain very concerned…that, as the opposition advances, in particular in Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” Panetta told reporters on Thursday.
“The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered,” he said.
US officials said privately this week that the Syrian regime has begun mixing precursor chemicals that could be used for sarin, a lethal nerve agent, and some media reports said the substance was loaded into bombs for warplanes.
Panetta repeated a US warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to resort to chemical weapons.
“The whole world’s watching very closely, and the president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people,” he said.
The heightened concern comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton imet today with U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the options to end the conflict in Syria.
The idea behind the meeting in Dublin is that the three parties might be able to revive the political transition plan on Syria put forward in Geneva in July.
Before the meeting began Clinton said, “Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways. The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We’ve made it very clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons.”
The Obama administration has said the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.”
The meeting last for 40 minutes and a senior State Department official said, “It was a constructive discussion focused on how to support a political transition in practical terms. The U.S. and Russia committed to support Special Envoy Brahimi’s efforts in that regard. The next step will be a meeting in the next few days between Special Envoy Brahimi and senior officials from the United States and Russia to discuss the specifics of taking this work forward.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly wrote to Assad Thursday urging him not to use chemical weapons, saying that “any use of such weapons would be an outrageous crime with dire consequences. Speaking in Baghdad, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Assad should be “brought to justice” if his regime uses chemical weapons.
The U.S. military is making contingency plans should Assad leave suddenly. Various Middle Eastern countries are trying to find a place to give Assad asylum, according to Middle Eastern diplomatic sources.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has joined the USS Iwo Jima off the Syrian coast. The Eisenhower, one of 11 U.S. aircraft carriers, holds eight fighter-bomber squadrons and 8,000 men. The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group holds about 2,500 Marines. The build up of troop presence follows warnings by U.S. and NATO officials.