By Richard Spencer
The United States has warned President Bashar al-Assad of Syria it would intervene in the country’s civil war if he used chemical weapons against the rebels.
The warning came as the U.N. said it was pulling all non-essential staff out of the country and, in a sign of the strains in Damascus itself, the chief foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi was reported to have defected.
Defense officials confirmed they had received “credible reports” of movements of weapons components at Syria’s known chemical sites, though there was no indication that stocks were being readied for immediate use.
But with Turkey already warning that the Syrian regime might use ballistic missiles, perhaps with chemical warheads, as a last resort, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, reiterated that this would change America’s policy towards the war.
“We have made our views very clear: this is a red line for the United States,” she said. “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people, but suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”
The United States and its Western allies have refused to back the rebels militarily or answer requests to impose a no-fly zone. They are getting closer to allowing direct arms supplies, and on Tuesday NATO is likely to approve sending Patriot missiles to Turkey’s borders to protect it from Syrian attacks, deliberate or accidental.
Assad is under severe pressure as the fighting comes closer to Damascus.
The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, said in an interview with AFP news agency that he thought the Assad regime could collapse “at any time.”
“Facts on the ground indicate very clearly now that the Syrian opposition is gaining, politically and militarily,” he said. “Every day they are gaining something.”
The United Nations also announced it was sending all non-essential, non-Syrian staff out of the country, and halting trips outside of the capital, because of the worsening security situation there.
The reported defection of Makdessi will add to the pressure on Assad. Mr. Makdessi was previously the press secretary of the Syrian embassy in London.
Syria’s air force has been bombing districts in southern Damascus which have fallen into rebel hands, and it has been unable to fully secure the airport and airport road. Although the airport reopened at the weekend, an EgyptAir plane from Cairo was turned back on Monday afternoon after being informed security was not assured.
However, the regime itself repeated denials yesterday that it would use its chemical weapons arsenal. “Syria confirms repeatedly it will never, under any circumstances, use chemical weapons against its own people, if such weapons exist,” an official said.