Barack Obama 'red line' warning over chemical weapons in Syria
Raf Sanchesz, Richard Spencer and Damien McElroy
President Barack Obama has warned that the use or movement of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a “red line” that could trigger an American intervention.
Mr Obama said that Bashar al-Assad would face “enormous consequences” if he deployed chemical weapons as he battles to put quell the 17-month uprising against his regime.
The threat of chemical weapons could “change the calculus” on the need to intervene, Mr Obama warned.
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said. “We’ve been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.”
Last month, Mr Assad’s government shocked the West by openly threatening to use its significant chemical weapons stockpiles, although it insisted they would only be deployed against foreign troops and would not be used in Syria’s internal conflict.
Mr Obama said that given the volatile situation on the ground he could not be “absolutely confident” that Syria’s weapons were still secure but said the US and its allies were closely watching sites where they are known to be stored.
Mr Obama’s warning came as the new UN envoy on the crisis had a disastrous first day in the office by angering both sides of the conflict.
Lakhbar Brahimi, a 78-year-old Arab diplomat, was pilloried by Damascus for suggesting Syria was in a civil war, and condemned by the opposition for backtracking on his predecessor’s belief that President Assad must leave office to stop the bloodshed.
Mr Brahimi, a veteran Algerian foreign minister who has been a troubleshooter in Lebanon and Iraq, said he would take no decision on the fate of the regime until he had met with leading figures at the UN and with Syria.
“There are a lot of people who say that we must avoid civil war in Syria; me I believe that we are already there for some time now,” Mr Brahimi said. “What’s necessary is to stop the civil war and that is not going to be easy.”
Syrian officials retorted that promoting talk of civil war amounted to joining the “conspiracy” against it.
Mr Brahimi also incurred the wrath of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) after he refused to endorse remarks by Kofi Annan, the previous envoy, that Mr Assad must quit.
The SNC said such remarks took the pressure off the regime. “Whoever gives this criminal regime an opportunity to kill tens of thousands more Syrians and destroy what is left of Syria does not want to recognise the extent of the tragedy,” it said.
Turkey increased pressure for international efforts to contain the regime by formally raising the prospect of creating a safe zone for refugees inside Syria, saying it could not cope with many more arriving inside its border.
“If the number of refugees in Turkey surpasses 100,000, we will run out of space to accommodate them,” Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “We should be able to accommodate them in Syria. The United Nations may build camps in a safe zone within Syria’s borders.”
An estimated 70,000 Syrians have fled over the northern borders into Turkey. Tens of thousands more have fled their towns and villages but stayed in the country with relatives or in makeshift camps in schools and government buildings.
The numbers are threatening to overwhelm facilities provided by Turkey.