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Syria's WMD: Real Threat or 'Pretext for Intervention'?

US armada gathers off coast of Syria

- Craig Brown, staff writer

The US and Europe are whipping up fear of chemical weapons as a pretext to intervene in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's government said on Thursday, after NBC News reported that US officials told their reporters that Syria had just "locked and loaded" sarin gas into aerial bombs.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad: "We fear there is a conspiracy to provide a pretext for any subsequent interventions in Syria by these countries that are increasing pressure on Syria." Interviewed on Lebanon's Al Manar television Thursday, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said, "Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide. We fear there is a conspiracy to provide a pretext for any subsequent interventions in Syria by these countries that are increasing pressure on Syria." He warned that any such intervention would be "catastrophic."

Mekdad also told the UK's Sky News Thursday that he doesn't even know if the Assad regime has chemical weapons. He reportedly said: "We don't know if we have them or not."

Syria has not signed the international chemical weapons treaty that bans the use and storage of poison gas, but has repeatedly said it would never use such arms on its own people.

Also Thursday, NATO advanced its plan to deploy Patriot missiles and troops along Syria's border with Turkey. Assad's regime blasted the move as "psychological warfare," calling the decision "provocative."

“The world is watching,” President Obama said in a Monday speech at the US National Defense University. “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.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned President Assad that he would be crossing “a red line” if he used nerve gas.

On Wednesday night, NBC News had reported:

The Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said. 

As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the "precursor" chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.

Meanwhile, the rightwing Israeli intelligence service DEBKA is reporting that the US has moved a major armada just off the Syrian coast. The USS Eisenhower Strike Group has just joined forces with the the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group with a combined force of 10,000 US troops, 70 fighter-bombers and at least 17 warships, including three Iwo Jima amphibious craft, a guided missile cruiser and 10 destroyers and frigates. Four of these vessels are armed with Aegis missile interceptors.

The USS Eisenhower Strike Group (file photo) has moved off the coast of Syria.

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