BRUSSELS: Western powers warned Damascus yesterday there would be an immediate reaction to any use of chemical weapons.
“The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable to the whole international community and I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community,” NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
US President Barack Obama said: “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching, the use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said.
“If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be con community sequences and you will be held accountable.”
France, with traditional interests in the region, made a similar point. “The leaders in Damascus must know the international is watching them and will react” if chemical weapons are used, French Foreign Ministry said.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, urged the international community to take a unified position on Syria after the rebel groups formed a coalition last month.
“We see in forming the new Syrian coalition an important positive step toward uniting the opposition under one banner,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said.
The situation in Syria is “unfortunately deteriorating with more victims, displaced, and severe destruction in Syrian cities caused by the regime,” he said.
“This makes the political transfer of power more urgent to preserve Syria’s land and people.”
Prince Saud's call came as Syrian forces bombarded rebel districts near Damascus in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around Assad’s power base.
Syrian state media said a rebel mortar attack on a school had killed 28 students and a teacher.
Patriot missiles for Turkey
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen said the chemical threat made it urgent for the alliance to send Patriot anti-missile missiles to Turkey.
The French Foreign Ministry referred to “possible movements on military bases storing chemical weapons in Syria” and said the international community would react if the weapons were used.
US President Barack Obama on Monday told Assad not to use chemical weapons, without saying how the United States might respond. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it would never use such weapons against Syrians.
Western military experts say Syria has four suspected chemical weapons sites, and it can produce chemical weapons agents including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent. The CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tons of agents annually.
The fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the United Nations and European Union to reduce their presence in the capital, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in. The army fightback came a day after the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman was reported to have defected in a potentially embarrassing blow to the government.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 people were killed across Syria on Monday, more than 60 of them around Damascus. Assad’s forces bombarded districts to the south east of the capital yesterday, near to the international airport, and in the rebel bastion of Daraya to the south west.
Opposition footage posted on the Internet showed a multiple rocket launcher fire 20 rockets, which activists said was filmed at the Mezze military airport in Damascus.
Reuters could not independently verify the footage due to the government’s severe reporting restrictions.
In central Damascus, shielded for many months from the full force of a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed, one resident reported hearing several loud explosions.
“I have heard four or five thunderous blows. It could be barrel bombs,” she said, referring to makeshift bombs which activists say Assad’s forces have dropped from helicopters on rebel-dominated areas.
The state news agency said that 28 students and a teacher were killed near the capital when rebels fired a mortar bomb on a school. Rebels have targeted government-held residential districts of the capital.
The rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing military bases, including some close to Damascus, from forces loyal to Assad. Faced with creeping rebel gains across the north and east of the country, and the growing challenge around the capital, Assad has increasingly resorted to air strikes against the insurgents.
A diplomat in the Middle East said Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi had left the country and defected, while the British-based Observatory said it had information that he flew from Beirut on Monday afternoon heading for London.
In Beirut, a diplomat said Lebanese officials had confirmed that Makdissi spent several days in Beirut before leaving on Monday, but could not confirm his destination.
Makdissi was the public face to the outside world of Assad’s government as it battled the 20-month-old uprising. But he had barely appeared in public for several weeks before Monday’s report of his defection.
The United Nations and European Union both said they were reducing their presence in Syria in response to the escalated violence around the capital.
A spokesman for UN humanitarian operations said the move would not stop aid deliveries to areas, which remained accessible to relief convoys.
“UN-funded aid supplies delivered through SARC (Syrian Arab Red Crescent) and other charities are still moving daily where the roads are open,” Jens Laerke told Reuters in Geneva. Three remaining international staff at the European Union delegation, who stayed on in Damascus after the departure of most Western envoys, crossed the border into Lebanon yesterday after pulling out of the Syrian capital.
The Syrian army appears to have focused most of its energy on Damascus, where rebels have been planning to push into the capital from the surrounding suburbs.
Clashes have continued around Damascus International Airport and along the airport highway, which has become an on-and-off battleground that forced foreign airlines to suspend flights to Damascus since Thursday evening.