23 Jul 2012

Syria pledges no chemical weapons against its people

Syria promises not to use chemical weapons against its own citizens, an action UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says that would be “reprehensible”. Alex Thomson reports live from Damascus.

The Syrian government admitted for the first time that it had chemical weapons, and said it would not rule out using the weapons on outside forces.

But Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said on Monday that chemical weapons would not be used to crush internal dissent. “Any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used – and I repeat will never be used – during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments,” he said.

But Mr Makdissi raised the possibility that “terrorists’ groups” might be supplied with biological weapons by outside powers which “could be used in one of the villages – God forbid – and then they would accuse the Syrian forces”. He added that these weapons will “never be used unless Syria faces external aggression”.

Mr Ban said: “It would be reprehensible if anyone in Syria would use weapons of mass destruction.”

It appeared to be the first time that Syria has acknowledged it might possess non-conventional weapons, Reuters reported. Damascus is not a signatory to the 1992 chemical weapons convention that bans their use, production or stockpiling.

As Mr Makdissi spoke, fighting raged around the intelligence headquarters in Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, and in Deir al-Zor in the east while witnesses in Damascus said Syrian troops commanded by the brother of President Bashar al-Assad drove rebel fighters out of the diplomatic district of Mezzeh.

Witness: young men ‘executed’ in Damascus

Hardliner Maher al-Assad executed several young men during the operation to regain control of the northern Damascus district of Barzeh, Reuters reported, citing a witness and activists. The reports could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, the EU approved a 17th round of sanctions against Syria, including asset-freezing, which has done little to stop the bloodshed. The EU froze the assets of a further three entities closely linked to the Assad family to deprive the regime of funding.

“The UK is continuing to lead efforts to intensify the pressure on this criminal regime,” said Foreign Secretary William Hague, at the EU foreign affairs council in Brussels today,

Chemical weapons

The spectre of chemical weapons was raised by the US Ambassador to the UN last week, but Syria said theirs were stored and secured by military forces under its direct supervision.

Mr Makdissi also said the security situation in Damascus, where Assad’s forces have been battling rebels for more than a week, was improving and would return to “normal” within days.

Arab League tells Assad to step down

He condemned calls for Assad to step down at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Qatar over the weekend, calling it a “flagrant intervention” in Syria’s internal affairs.

Arab League leaders want the Syrian president to swiftly relinquish power, Qatar’s Emir told reporters on Monday.

“There is agreement on the need for the rapid resignation of President Bashar al-Assad,” Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani told journalists after a meeting of the Arab League in Doha.

“We call on the opposition and the Free Syrian Army to form a government of national unity,” he said.

Some 123 people were killed in Syria, 59 of them civilians, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. As many as 1,290 people have been killed in the last week, three quarters of them civilians.

Iraq border post seized

Also on Monday, Iraqi officials said Syrian forces regained control of one of two border crossings seized by rebels on the frontier with Iraq, but rebels claimed to have captured a third border crossing with Turkey: Bab al-Salam, north of Aleppo.

“Seizing the border crossings does not have strategic importance but it has a psychological impact because it demoralises Assad’s force,” a senior Syrian army defector in Turkey, Staff Brigadier Faiz Amr, told Reuters by phone.

Rebels also seized an army infantry school in the town of Musalmiyeh, 16 km (10 miles) north of Aleppo, and captured several loyalist officers, while others defected, Reuters reported.

Another man approaches. This time he will talk if we film him from behind. He speaks precisely of a massacre of a particular family. Sixteen people and he names the family too. All killed by the hated 'shabbiha' – the pro-Assad militia men. It is the story we heard in Al Houla several weeks ago. The familiar pattern of heavy shelling and bombardment followed by militia going house to house looting and massacring. 

Read Alex Thomson's blog from Damascus.