WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama warned Syria’s government Monday that it would be “totally unacceptable” to use chemical weapons against its own people and vowed to hold accountable anyone who did, as U.S. intelligence officials picked up signs that such arms might be deployed in the ongoing insurgency.
The White House said that some recent actions by the government of President Bashar Assad were indicators that Syrian forces were preparing to use such weapons, following earlier reports that intelligence agencies had noticed signs of activity at chemical weapons sites. Obama’s spokesman said the administration had “an increased concern” of possible use of chemical weapons.
In a speech later in the day that echoed earlier comments by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama sternly asserted that he would punish Syria for using chemical weapons, although he did not say how. The administration has been preparing contingency plans that include the dispatch of tens of thousands of troops to secure such weapons, although it is not clear whether Obama would go that far.
“Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
The president’s statements on Syria amplified similar warnings issued by Clinton earlier in the day in Prague, the Czech capital, where she was stopping on her way to meetings in Brussels.
“This is a red line for the United States,” Clinton said. “I am 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 Syrian Foreign Ministry, in a swift response, said the government “would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances.”
Meanwhile, fighting between rebels and government forces raged near the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday, forcing an inbound commercial jet to turn back while the U.N. said it was withdrawing staff because of deteriorating security conditions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.