Syria rejects offer of safe passage for Assad family amid chemical weapons threats

Regime turns down Arab League offer amid threats to use chemical weapons against 'external aggression'

The Syrian regime yesterday dismissed as "flagrant interventionism" an Arab League offer to provide a safe exit for President Bashar al-Assad and his family if he steps aside, while admitting for the first time that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.

With the region rattled as conflict enters a new phase of instability, Qatar's Prime Minister, Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, said the pan-Arab body had put forward the offer, no further details of which were provided. However, it was promptly attacked by the Syrian regime, with a foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, saying that the League was interested only in perpetuating the bloodshed.

Speaking at a press conference in Damascus, Mr Makdissi also accused Western officials and media outlets of ramping up the rhetoric over Syria's stockpiles of unconventional weapons as a pretext for intervention. "Any chemical or biological weapons will never be used, I repeat, will never be used in the Syrian crisis, no matter what the internal developments in this crisis are," he said.

However, he added: "All varieties of these weapons are stored and secured by the Syrian armed forces and under its direct supervision, and will not be used unless Syria is subjected to external aggression." The statement was both an unprecedented admission and a chilling threat to those pushing for intervention.

The government later backed away from the statement that it possessed such weapons, saying Mr Makdissi had meant that "if any" existed then they would not be used against the Syrian people. The regime, which has not signed up to the international convention banning chemical weapons, is thought to have large stockpiles largely consisting of sarin, mustard gas and nerve agents, which it is capable of delivering via Scud missiles.

Analysts said that the threat is likely to do little to change any plans for intervention, with such unconventional weaponry useless against aerial attack. Despite pushing for a "Chapter 7" resolution at the UN Security Council last week, which would have opened up the possibility of military intervention, there remains little appetite for such action in the West.

US officials have said they are aware that the Syrian government has been moving its stockpiles in recent weeks – but are divided on whether this is to secure them from the opposition or for potential deployment.

One of the greatest concerns to Western diplomats is that such stockpiles will fall into the hands of the rebels. In sign of the concern, Brigadier General Michael Herzog, the former chief of staff to Israel's Defence minister Ehud Barak, said yesterday that he understood that the Obama administration was contemplating the dispatch of additional intelligence and communications personnel and non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebel groups in southern Turkey.

Violence has taken an even bloodier turn since the assassination of Assad's top security officials last week. The rebels appear to be struggling to hold onto their gains in Damascus, with Mr Makdissi saying that he expected the neighbourhoods there to be purged in a few days.

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