The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. intelligence shows Syria has started to move some of its sizable arsenal of chemical weapons out of storage facilities• “This could set the precedent of weapons of mass destruction being used under our watch” • Over 200 people massacred yesterday by Syrian government forces, activists say.
By Reuters & the Israel Hayom Staff
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said that Syria has started to move part of its chemical weapons arsenal out of storage facilities, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
The country’s undeclared stockpiles of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide have long worried U.S. officials and their allies in the region, the report said.
Western nations have looked for signs amid the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government of any change in the location of those weapons, believed to be the world’s largest stockpile.
American officials are divided on the meaning of the moves of the arsenal. Some fear Assad may want to use the weapons against rebels or civilians, while others said perhaps he is trying to safeguard them from his opponents, the Journal reported.
Whatever the reason, evidence that the chemical weapons are being moved could intensify the crisis in Syria, some U.S. officials fear.
“This could set the precedent of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] being used under our watch,” one official told the Journal. “This is incredibly dangerous to our national security.”
Obama administration officials have already begun to hold classified meetings about the new intelligence. The officials are especially concerned over Syria’s stockpile of sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent. The officials wouldn’t comment on where the weapons have been moved.
The new intelligence over the weapons comes as Washington and its allies ramp up pressure on Russia to join an international push to remove Assad from power. But according to the Journal, officials believe the new data could be interpreted in opposite ways: It could strengthen calls for international action to oust Assad, but it also underscores the risks of foreign intervention against an army equipped with weapons of mass destruction.
“This shows how complex this is,” another U.S. official told the Journal.
The Syrian government denied that its chemical weapons stockpiles have been moved.
“This is absolutely ridiculous and untrue,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in response. “If the U.S. is so well-informed, why can’t they help [U.N. envoy] Kofi Annan in stopping the flow of illegal weapons to Syria in order to end the violence and move towards the political solution?”
The White House, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment, according to The Wall Street Journal report.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said Friday, “We repeatedly made it clear that the Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons.”
She added that “the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fail to meet that obligation.”
Syria is one of eight states — along with Israel and nearby Egypt — that have not joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which means the world’s chemical weapons watchdog has no jurisdiction to intervene there.
The Assad government has in the past denied having weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, more than 200 Syrians, mostly civilians, were massacred on Thursday in a village in the rebellious Hama region when it was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks and then stormed by militiamen who carried out execution-style killings, opposition activists said.
If confirmed, it would be the worst single incident of violence in 16 months of conflict in which rebels are fighting to topple Assad and diplomacy to halt the bloodshed has been stymied by jostling between world powers.
Activists said it took place on Thursday, while the U.N. Security Council negotiated a new resolution on Syria. Washington and its allies said it showed the need for tough action, but Russia ruled out accepting their latest draft.
The Revolution Leadership Council of Hama told Reuters the Sunni Muslim village of Tremseh was subjected on Thursday to a barrage of heavy weapons fire before pro-government Alawite militiamen swept in and killed victims one by one. Some civilians were killed while trying to flee.
Opposition reports suggested that rebels from the Free Syrian Army, fighting to overthrow Assad, were stationed in the village.
“More than 220 people fell today in Tremseh. They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions,” the regional opposition group said in a statement on Thursday evening.
Syrian state television said three security personnel had been killed in fighting in Tremseh and accused “armed terrorist groups” of committing a massacre there.
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Tremseh, said he had left the town before the reported killing spree but was in touch with residents. “It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Tremseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling.
“Every family in the town seems to have members killed. We have names of men, women and children from countless families,” he said, adding many of the bodies were taken to a local mosque.
Footage of the aftermath of the reported massacre had yet to appear on activists’ websites and the reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities severely limit access for independent journalists.
Ahmed, another local activist, told Reuters: “So far, we have 20 victims recorded with names and 60 bodies at a mosque. There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses … People were trying to flee from the time the shelling started and whole families were killed trying to escape.”
A detailed account by activists before news of the massacre emerged said at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday (0300GMT), a convoy of 25 vehicles carrying army and security forces, 3 armoured vehicles and five trucks mounted with artillery passed West through the town of Muharda and headed toward the village of Tremseh.
“They blockaded the village from all four sides and began violently and randomly firing on houses as a helicopter flew overhead. As the attack happened the electricity and telephone lines were cut. Residents gathered in the streets in a state of fear and panic. They were unable to flee because of the blockade from every side,” the report posted on activist Web sites said.
“After that, fierce clashes erupted between the heroic Free Syrian Army and Assad’s army. Assad’s gangs attacked the village school and completely destroyed it. Many people were injured.”
A tweet from U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said: “Reports of Traymseh massacre are nightmarish – dramatically illustrate the need for binding UNSC measures on Syria.”
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=5037