Obama Warns Syria on Chemical Arms

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President Barack Obama last month warned the Syrian government that using or moving chemical weapons would be seen as a step that was so serious it could trigger a U.S. military response.

At an Aug. 20 press conference, Obama said "at this point" he has "not ordered military engagement," but emphasized that "[w]e cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people."

He said the United States "has communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a redline for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly."

Obama's comments came as the civil conflict in Syria worsens and President Bashar al-Assad's hold on power appears to be increasingly tenuous. The situation has led governments and independent experts to worry about the possibility that Syrian government forces might use the weapons or that the weapons could spread to other states or nonstate groups, by Syrian design or inability to secure them.

The U.S. military reportedly has completed the "initial planning" for operations in Syria, including securing chemical weapons, in the event of a regime collapse. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)

Obama made his comments about a month after remarks by Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi were widely interpreted as confirming for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons. After reading a statement in Arabic at a July 23 press conference, Makdissi recapitulated it in English: "Any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapons that the Syrian Arabic Republic possess would never be used against civilian, or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstances.... All the stocks of the weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possess are monitored and guarded by the Syrian army."

Later in the press conference, he used a similar formulation, but added a qualifier: "Any stocks of any unconventional weapon, any chemical weapon, if it exists, it won't be used-never, ever-against civilian, against the Syrian people." The weapons would be used only against "external aggression," he said.

According to the Associated Press, the Syrian government subsequently sent a statement to journalists, saying that "all of these types of weapons-IF ANY-are in storage and under security. …