After an intense week of fighting, clashes between rebel forces and those loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad continued on Tuesday in the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, the country's most populous city, where rebels have staged a major offensive in recent days. The deadly 16-month conflict has escalated significantly following last week's bombing attack that killed a number of Assad's top advisors, including his defense minister and top military commander.
On Monday, Syrian officials warned they would deploy chemical weapons in the event of any "external aggression." Western leaders have warned the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad against any such attack. One day later, a spokesman for Syria's Foreign Ministry assured that such weapons would never be used against Syria's own citizens and that they would only be deployed in the event of a foreign incursion.
But the threat made by Syria on Monday is also an indirect acknowledgment that the country does indeed have chemical weapons as has long been suspected. The CIA noted in a report last year that Syria is believed to have a chemical weapons stockpile "which can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles and artillery rockets." Concerns are growing in the international community that, amidst the chaos in the country, that chemical weapons might fall into the wrong hands. Concerned the weapons might reach Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group aligned with Syria and Iran, Israel is even publicly weighing the possibility of military action.
"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," US President Barack Obama said in a speech in Reno, Nevada.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also strongly condemned the suggestion. "Threatening the use of chemical weapons is outrageous," he said, urging that any such stockpiles be safeguarded in a responsible way. "With this the Syrian regime has once again shown its inhuman mindset."
The leaders' comments were also echoed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said Syria's chemical weapons were under "strict surveillance by the international community," adding that using them would be wrong.
However, there is no suggestion at the moment that the international community has any intention of intervening in the Syrian conflict. Even though Western countries, along with some Arab nations, are pushing for Assad's fall, Russia, China, Iran and Iraq remain opposed to forcing a change in power.
Tensions are also running high between Syria and its neighbor Turkey, where Syrian refugees continue to flood in. The Syrian rebels are "closer than ever to victory," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said, calling for Assad to step down.
The head of the Arab League said on Tuesday that Assad wouldn't remain in office for long. "There is now no talk about political reform, but (about) a transfer of power," Nabil Elaraby told the London-based, pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat. Arab League ministers on Sunday offered Assad and his family a safe haven in exchange for relinquishing power.
German commentators on Tuesday predict that Assad's days as leader are numbered, but also warn that his fall will lead to chaos both within Syria and in the surrounding region.
Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Syria has said it will use its chemical weapons only in the case of 'external aggression.' The meaning of this statement by the Syrian leadership is not the assumed threat of action against an intervention, because the West isn't planning an intervention that aims to topple Assad. Furthermore, the use of chemical weapons would be suicide for Assad. ... The regime would not only be discredited, but would also be physically at its end. He wants to avoid that, and in the face of international nervousness is thus searching for a way to signal that there is no need to worry about the chemical weapons. Whether this will actually soothe Israel and the US is uncertain. ... It also betrays the situation in which the regime finds itself, increasingly losing control of the country. Its assurances can't be trusted."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The imminent fall of the regime is unlikely to be accompanied by a controlled takeover of power by the opposition. Instead, it will engender a wild power struggle over who really calls the shots for the opposition. For Syria's neighboring countries, that means that they will have to prepare for more refugees -- not fewer."
"Turkey faces another more explosive problem: The eastern part of the nearly 900 kilometer (559 mile) long border with Syria is virtually a Turkish-Kurdish border, because that's where Syria's Kurds live."
"Things will get complicated for Turkey, a country that has called for Assad's fall. It is as unprepared for the departure of the Assad clan as the other neighboring countries, and helpless to deal with the Kurdish problem. Instead of working toward a political solution with the Kurds who live inside Turkey, the government has insisted on repression -- increasing the Kurdish desire for greater autonomy, if not independence. Borders can be closed, but Turkey can't keep the problem that the rebellion in Syria will bring at bay."
Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The civil war in Syria could spread into a regional conflict. That is more than a truism, because Assad's fall could heighten the chaos in the country to the point where neighboring countries feel compelled to intervene. The tension is already immense."
"Israel and Iran are dangerous variables in this war. For Israel, Syria's chemical weapons are currently more dangerous than Iran's plans to build nuclear weapons. Iran feels equally as threatened. Hand in hand with the Sunni Arab states, the West is stoking the rebellion against Assad with both money and weapons. The plan is to destroy the political and military bridge between Syria and Iran, along with their Lebanon-based wing Hezbollah. That's how they want to contain Iran along with its nuclear ambitions. Regardless whether it is dilettantes or experts doing the juggling in Syria, there are still too many balls in the air. No one can really catch them all anymore."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Things on the ground in Syria are unlikely to improve. Too much hate has built up, too much blood has flowed, too long has the oppression gone on, and too acute is the interest in countries far and wide to remain passive so as not to become the losers in the Syrian bloodbath."
"Even if the regime's erosion continues as it has in recent days ... the Syrian conflict will be far from over. A double escalation looms. It will be about domestic power and the question of who Syria belongs to. The country is too important, too central and too divisive to be left to itself. The primary interests of the West, as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, must be an orderly change of power and keeping Iranian fanatics and their helpers out of the country."
-- Kristen Allen
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