Amid reported intelligence findings that Syria, engulfed in a 20-month civil war with opposition rebels, is moving chemical weapons, United States President Barack Obama issued an unmistakable warning to the country on December 3, 2012. "The use of chemical weapons is, and would be, totally unacceptable and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," he said.
Obama's comment underscores the United States' long-held military and foreign policies that are decidedly anti-chemical weapons.
Chemical Weapons Fears In Syria
Obama made his remarks as fears mounted that Syria was moving either chemical weapons themselves or parts of chemical weapons delivery systems. Several news agencies, including NBC and Fox, reported that Syria had mixed the binary components needed to make sarin gas (the same chemical used in a 1995 Tokyo subway terrorist attack). If that is true, Syrian forces have 60 days to use the mixture before it becomes ineffective. After that the chemicals must be destroyed.
Such activity could indicate that dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime is preparing to use the weapons on opposition forces. Free Syria forces have been fighting Assad's regular troops since spring 2011. Reports throughout late 2012 indicated that rebels had made some strategic progress against the loyal army.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on December 3 that the U.S. is closely monitoring the status of Syria's chemical weapons stores. "As the opposition makes strategic advances and grows in the strength, the Assad regime has been unable to halt the opposition's progress through conventional means," Carney said. "We are concerned that an increasingly beleaguered regime . . . might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syria people."
Obama, Carney, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all stopped short of saying the U.S. would undertake military action against Syria if it crossed a "red line" of using chemical weapons. However, neither did they rule it out.
Speaking at a press conference in the Czech Republic, also on December 3, Clinton said the Assad regime's "actions against their own people have been tragic. But there is no doubt that there is a line between even the horrors that they have already inflicted on the Syrian people and moving to what would be an internationally condemned step of utilizing their chemical weapons."
Clinton added that she would not "telegraph" any American intentions if Assad does use chemical weapons. However, Obama said Syria's use of chemical weapons would be "totally unacceptable." He added that, "the world is watching."
U.S., NATO Protecting Turkey
Meanwhile, Clinton confirmed at the Brussels, Belgium, headquarters of NATO on December 5 that the organization was sending Patriot missile batteries to Turkey. Patriot missiles are designed to track and destroy incoming enemy missiles. They debuted with great success in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and they have improved in the two decades since.
NATO is basing the missiles in Turkey as defense against any missiles incoming from neighboring Syria, whether errant or deliberately aimed. Clinton emphasized that the Patriots are not part of any U.S./NATO offensive plan should Syria fire chemical rounds.
Clinton said the installation of the Patriots is "solely for the defense of Turkey. It will have no offensive or other purpose." She noted that "it does send a clear message to the Syrians that Turkey has the full support of all its NATO allies."
Hope For Diplomatic Solution
Clinton added that she wants to think beyond the possibility of chemical warfare to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. The U.S. is supporting the opposition Friends of the Syrian People group, which Clinton said will soon meet to "explore . . . what more we can do to try to bring this conflict to an end."
She said for that to happen, though, "will require the Assad regime making the decision to participate in a political transition, ending the violence against its own people."