US warns NATO over Syria chemical threat

BRUSSELS – Hürriyet – 24.4.2013 – NATO needs to plan a possible response in the event Bashar al-Assad’s government uses chemical weapons, Washington’s top diplomat says. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged NATO to prepare for the possible use of chemical weapons by Syria and called for alliance members to boost their assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Kerry said contingency plans should be put in place to guard against the threat of a chemical weapons strike. “Planning regarding Syria, such as what [NATO] has already done, is an appropriate undertaking for the alliance,” Kerry told NATO foreign ministers yesterday in Brussels. “We should also carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat.” Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted that “the situation in Syria has dramatically deteriorated” and “continues to pose a threat to regional stability.”

He said the alliance is “extremely concerned about the use of ballistic missiles in Syria and the possible use of chemical weapons.” However, he also noted that NATO has not yet been asked to intervene.

“There is no call for NATO to play a role, but if these challenges remain unaddressed, they could directly affect our own security,” he told reporters. “So we will continue to remain extremely vigilant.” NATO ally Turkey borders Syria and would be most at-risk from such an attack. NATO has already deployed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey. Earlier in the day, an Israeli general said Israel believed Damascus has used chemical weapons in the conflict, a claim that has also been made by Britain and France. American officials say the evidence to date is inconclusive, but U.S. President Barack Obama has said the use of such weapons would be a “game changer” and hinted it could draw intervention.

“To the best of our professional understanding, the [the Syrian government] has made use of deadly chemical weapons against the rebels in a number of incidents in the last few months,” said Brigadier Gen. Itai Brun, head of the research and analysis division of Israel’s military intelligence.

Speaking to delegates at a Tel Aviv security conference, he cited an incident on March 19 in Aleppo province in which 31 people were killed, pointing to the physical symptoms suffered by those in the area at the time. “Which chemical weapons? Apparently sarin. The regime is also using chemical weapons that neutralize and are not fatal,” he added.

Kerry said the Obama administration was “looking at every option that could possibly end the violence and usher in a political transition” and that plans needed to be made now to ensure that there was no power vacuum if al-Assad were overthrown. Kerry also said increasing aid to the Syrian National Coalition and its military command, the Supreme Military Council, was critical to that effort.

“I want to urge all of your governments to increase your material and political support to the coalition and the [military council], which share our vision for Syria’s future, and to ensure that all assistance is only funneled through them,” Kerry said.

Speaking April 21 during a visit to Turkey, Kerry announced that the U.S. would double its non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. Many of NATO’s 28 members also belong to the European Union, which a day before lifted its oil embargo on Syria to provide more economic support to the rebels and is now considering easing an arms embargo on the country to allow weapons transfers to those fighting the al-Assad government.