Some call concerns over weapons a “media game” that will play into Assad’s hands.
12:40AM EST December 7. 2012 – ANTAKYA, Turkey — Syrian activists criticized the hubbub over the regime’s possible use of chemical weapons as a distraction, dismissing Western concerns over President Bashar Assad’s crossing “a red line” as playing into the dictator’s hands.
“I don’t think the regime will use chemical weapons – it’s just a media game for the purpose of prolonging the revolution, so the Syrian people become more divided and the regime has more time,” said Walat Ahmae, a member of the Syrian National Council based in Antakya.
“We have known that there are chemical weapons from the start, so this isn’t a new or more worrying threat.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Russia’s foreign minister and a U.N. peace envoy in Dublin to see whether the three could discuss uniting behind a strategy to end the violence and the Assad regime. Russia is an ally of Syria and has refused to go along with any suggested U.S. diplomatic measures to pressure the Assad regime.
Over the past week, President Obama and other Western leaders have warned Assad that using his chemical stockpiles against his own people will have grave consequences for his regime – without specifying exactly what those would be.
A report by NBC News Thursday had Pentagon officials confirming that Assad was arming bombs with chemicals contained in sarin nerve gas while other US officials told the Associated Press that they have noticed the Syrian military moving around chemical stockpiles.
Syria analysts said they were skeptical.
“It is an incredibly detailed piece of information that even for someone in the intelligence community would be difficult to come by – although it’s not impossible,” said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at HIS Jane’s, a defense and security intelligence analysis agency in London.
“I still think the regime in Syria is fairly rational in the respect of using chemical weapons, and I think the Western concerns are more centered on Islamists and Salafist groups getting hold of the weapons than the Assad government actually using them.”
Syria has denied preparing to use such weapons. Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, called such a move “suicide.”
”I repeat for the hundredth time that even if such weapons exist in Syria, they will not be used against the Syrian people,” Mekdad said in an interview with Lebanese Al-Manar TV. ”We would not commit suicide.”
Instead, Mekdad said the Syrian government is concerned that Western governments would place chemical weapons in the hands of “terrorists,” then blame the regime when they are used.
Turkey is moving to deploy Patriot missiles along its border with Syria, escalating tension with the Assad regime, which sees such action as preparation for Western intervention.
German officials confirmed Thursday that two German Patriot batteries with a total of 400 soldiers would be sent to the border area under NATO command for up to one year along with Dutch and U.S. personnel.
The missiles are being placed there to defend Turkish territory – five Turks were killed earlier this year in cross-border skirmishes – not establish or maintain a no-fly zone in Syria, the officials said.
”Nobody knows what such a regime is capable of,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. “We are acting proactively.”
Syrian officials called the move “provocative” and warned that any foreign military intervention would have “severe” and “catastrophic” consequences.
Meanwhile, opposition activists warned that – despite the Assad regime’s denials that it will use the weapons – rogue elements in the government side could still use them unilaterally.
“It (the weapons) could be used, not by command, but by an operator or a group – before they go, they destroy the whole area for example,” said Syrian opposition activist Hozan Ibrahim in Germany.
Still, Ibrahim counseled that such a scenario – where an area commander ordered deployment of the weapons – is still a “very small possibility.”
Meanwhile, the conventional fighting in Syria continues. In Damascus, the regime bombed several opposition strongholds in the suburbs of the capital. A car bomb exploded, killing one and damaging the offices of the Syrian Red Crescent, which distributes relief supplies. Rebels also continued to battle soldiers on the road to Damascus International Airport and said they are close to taking an air base close to the capital.
It is the failure of Assad’s superior military to conclusively defeat the rebels as they bring the fight to Damascus that has the Syrian regime growing desperate in the-21 month rebellion that has killed more than 40,000 people, according to activists, the only reason Assad would use such weapons.
While news on the chemical weapons has led to further speculation that the West may intervene, activists said it would be too little too late.
“What is the message the international community is sending to the regime?” said Sami Ibrahim, an activist with the Syrian Network for Human Rights in Damascus. “You use chemical weapons and we will interfere. The message should be to prevent him (now) not after we lose thousands of people and then we’ll stop you.”
At their meeting that took place as an aside to a previously scheduled human rights conference, Clinton gathered with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and mediator Lakhdar Brahimi for about 40 minutes.
“We have been trying hard to work with Russia to try to stop the bloodshed in Syria and start a political transition for a post-Assad Syrian future,” Clinton told reporters. “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, and I think we will discuss that and many other aspects of what is needed to end the violence.”
“We have talked a little bit about how we can work out hopefully a process that will get Syria back from the brink,” Brahimi said after the meeting.
CHEMICAL WEAPONS FEARS:Reports: Syria has put nerve gas in bombs
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said intelligence reports raise fears that an increasingly desperate Assad is considering using his chemical weapons arsenal.
The United States and Russia agreed in June on a plan that demanded several steps by the Assad regime to de-escalate tensions and end the violence that activists say has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011. It would then have required Syria’s opposition and the regime to put forward candidates for a transitional government, with each side having the right to veto nominees proposed by the other.
If employed, the strategy would surely mean the end of more than four decades of an Assad family member at Syria’s helm. The opposition has demanded Assad’s departure and has rejected any talk of him staying in power. Yet it also would grant regime representatives the opportunity to block Sunni extremists and others in the opposition that they reject.
The transition plan never got off the ground. Brahimi’s predecessor, former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, drafted the plan, then resigned his post in frustration. The United States blamed the collapse on Russia for vetoing a third resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would have applied world sanctions against Assad’s government for failing to live by the deal’s provisions.
Russia insisted that the Americans unfairly sought Assad’s departure as a precondition and worried about opening the door to military action, even as Washington offered to include language in any U.N. resolution that would have expressly forbade outside armed intervention.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday that several countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have informally offered to grant asylum to Assad and his family if they leave Syria. Wherever Assad may end up, Toner said the U.S. would insist on his being held accountable for “the horrible abuses he has committed against his own people.”
The United States is also preparing to designate Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian rebel group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist organization in a step aimed at blunting the influence of extremists within the Syrian opposition, officials said Wednesday.