After bloody week, West warns Syria on chemical arms
BEIRUT July 24 — Explosions and gunfire rocked one Damascus neighbourhood on Tuesday and residents elsewhere buried their dead after days of fighting between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
As the struggle for Syria intensified, Western leaders seized on an admission by Damascus that it has chemical and biological arms and could use them if foreign powers intervened.
“Given the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech to veterans in Reno, Nevada.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Syria’s chemical weapons were under “strict surveillance by the international community” and that their use would be unacceptable.
A week of unprecedented violence in the capital, Damascus, including a bomb attack that killed four of Assad’s closest advisers, has galvanised the 16-month-old uprising, although the Syrian army has battled to regain ground lost to rebels.
Several explosions and gunfire echoed through the central district of Barzeh after government forces stormed in overnight, opposition activists said. Tanks prowled the streets of Midan, a neighbourhood recaptured by the army from rebels on Friday.
In the city’s north-eastern district of Qaboun, most streets were empty except for people returning to check on homes, some of which were destroyed in last week’s battles there.
“I came just to pick up some of my family’s belongings, I am not returning for now,” one woman said outside her building.
Groups of men were pulling bodies from beneath the rubble of one building. “We have removed 25 bodies so far from this area, we are burying them quickly,” one said.
An activist said 24 bodies of what appeared to be executed fighters had been found in Daraya, outside Damascus, on Monday.
The accounts could not be verified independently due to Syrian restrictions on media access.
Battles have also reached Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, which had long remained unscathed by the uprising.
Rebels said on Tuesday they had captured Bab al-Hadeed square, less than a mile from Aleppo’s central citadel, airing live footage from the area to support their claim.
With the conflict raging in Syria’s two biggest cities, as well as many provincial ones, Western and many Arab nations are pushing for Assad’s removal, although Russia, China, Iran and Iraq are among others opposed to any forced handover of power.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the anti-Assad rebellion was “closer than ever to victory” and warned that Turkey would respond firmly to any hostility from Syria.
Turkey, which demanded that Assad quit after he failed to heed calls for reform, harbours Syrian rebels, army defectors and tens of thousands of refugees along its border with Syria.
Tensions between the two once-friendly countries rose sharply last month when Syria shot down a Turkish jet.
"Against Arab interest"
The head of the Arab League said in an interview published on Tuesday that Assad’s days in office were numbered. “There is now no talk about political reform, but (about) a transfer of power,” Nabil Elaraby told the pan-Arab newspaper "al-Hayat".
Arab ministers meeting in Doha on Sunday called on Assad to relinquish power, adding that the League would help provide a safe exit for him and his family if he did so.
Elaraby said he would soon travel to China and Russia, which have three times blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, to try to persuade them to change course.
“Our message to the Russians will be, with clarity and frankness, that the veto decision they took is viewed as being against Arab interests,” Elaraby said.
The ferocity of the Syria conflict, in which 1,261 people have been killed since fighting intensified in Damascus on July 15, according to one opposition watchdog, has concentrated attention on the possible repercussions of Assad’s overthrow.
The death toll reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights for the past week was by far the highest in an uprising in which activists say at least 18,000 people have been killed.
Apparently responding to U.S. and Israeli concerns that Syria’s non-conventional weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other Islamist groups, Damascus acknowledged for the first time that it possessed chemical and biological arms.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels but could use them against forces from outside the country.
“Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used ... during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments,” Makdissi said on Monday. “These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression.”
Damascus has not signed a 1992 international convention that bans the use, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, but officials in the past had denied it had any stockpiles.
Britain, Germany and other countries also said it was unacceptable for Syria to say it might use chemical arms. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was very concerned Syria may be tempted to use unconventional weapons.
Israel has publicly discussed military action to prevent Syrian chemical weapons or missiles from reaching Assad’s Lebanese Shi’ite militant allies Hezbollah.
The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria: north of Damascus, near Homs, in Hama and near the Mediterranean port of Latakia. Weapons it produces include the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun, it said, without citing its sources. — Reuters