Syria's chemical and biological weapons 'only for outsiders'
Damascus also rejected a call by the Arab League for President Bashar al-Assad to step down to end the country's escalating crisis.
Under mounting international pressure, the Damascus government scored what observers ridiculed as a devastating own goal on Monday by effectively admitting that it possessed an arsenal of the banned weapons – the source of recent concern as the situation has deteriorated.
Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry spokesperson, was responding to public and private warnings from Israel and the US by insisting that these weapons would only be used in case of a foreign attack on Syria and not against its own people.
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used ... no matter what the developments inside Syria," Makdissi said. "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."
But US President Barack Obama said on Monday evening: "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."
A US state department's spokesperson said warnings against using chemical weapons extended not only to the Syrian government but to rebels and any militants who might try to obtain them.
William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, seized on the statement to attack Assad.
"This is typical of the complete illusion of this regime that they are the victims of external aggression," he said. "What is actually happening is their own people are rising up against a brutal police state. It is nothing to do with any aggression from anywhere else in the world and, in any case, it is unacceptable to say that they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances."
Until now, Syria has never officially confirmed it has chemical weapons, though it is no surprise that it does. Like Israel, it is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty which outlaws production. Israel also has a large but undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons outside the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
Syria also rebuffed the Arab League's call from the Qatari capital Doha for Assad to go and for opposition forces to set up a transitional government of national unity. "If the Arab nations who met in Doha were honest about wanting to stop the bloodshed they would have stopped supplying arms ... they would stop their instigation and propaganda," Makdissi said. "All their statements are hypocritical."
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are leading supporters of the Free Syrian Army, the opposition's main armed wing.
Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani urged Assad to take the "courageous" decision to surrender power in order to save his country, where fierce fighting continued to rage between government troops and rebels. An estimated 17 000 to 19 000 people have been killed in the last 16 months.
In a sign that Iran, Syria's main ally in the region, is also acknowledging the pressure on Assad, its influential parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, proposed that Syria hold presidential elections as a way to end the civil war. Assad's enemies insist he must go at once, without conditions. – © Guardian News and Media 2012, Reuters