Just for show?
The Syrian government has admitted to possessing chemical weapons, possibly threatening to use them in the event of foreign military intervention, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Perhaps it was the instinct for survival that caused the Syrian government to announce that it possessed chemical weapons recently, but the backlash of the announcement may have been broader and greater than expected.
The admission provoked both the enemies and the friends of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Russia and the US, at opposite ends of the spectrum on the Syrian crisis, formed an unexpected alliance to warn the regime not to be tempted to use such weapons.
The statement by an official spokesman of Syria's Foreign Ministry that his country possessed a stockpile of chemical weapons was disturbing, as was his declaration that generals in the Syrian army "know when and where to use these weapons".
The spokesman's assurances that the weapons were "well secured" cut little ice since they were accompanied by threats to use them, should need be, "in confronting foreign aggressors".
Soon after the statements were made, discussions began at the international level on the need to prevent the Syrian regime from using the weapons and the need to secure them should the regime be overthrown.
The Syrian government later attempted to correct the statements made by the official, and less than an hour after he had made them it said that they had been misunderstood. What the spokesman had meant to say, it said, was that were the weapons to exist they would be securely under the control of the armed forces.
The government recanted on its admission that Syria possessed the weapons, even though Syria is thought to possess one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.
However, it is hard to see how the statements by the spokesman were improvised because he was reading from a written statement. According to the Syrian opposition, the Syrian security apparatus might have been responsible for the statement, wanting to send a firm message inside and outside Syria.
The statement could then have been amended by diplomats once they had realised the gravity of the mistake.
A few days before, reports by the Syrian opposition and in the West had stated that the Syrian regime intended to use sarin gas against opposition fighters. Other reports said that there was a possibility that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile would be transferred to Hizbullah, the Syrian regime's ally in Lebanon.
Israel has stated that it will take military action to prevent chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) from reaching the hands of Hizbullah.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel was ready to intervene if there were signs that Hizbullah had received chemical weapons from Syria. "The moment we see Syrians transferring biological and chemical weapons to Hizbullah, it will be a red line for us," Lieberman said.
"We would consider that to be a clear act of war, and we will take firm action without hesitation or reservation."
However, according to Gilad Amos, director of political affairs at the Israeli Ministry of Defence, the Syrian regime continues to have complete control over the weapons, "and there is no need to panic".
After the Syrian admission, politicians inside and outside the region expressed their concern that the regime could use chemical weapons against revolutionary hotspots if it felt yet more threatened.
Officials in the US and Israel said that the regime had crossed a red line, and they issued warnings against any attempt to use such weapons.
US President Barack Obama said that Al-Assad would be held accountable if he made the "tragic mistake" of using chemical weapons, and the White House expressed its concern at how safely the weapons were being secured and guarded by the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon warned the Syrian regime "not even to think" about using the weapons.
At the same time, Moscow warned Al-Assad against using chemical weapons, reminding him that in 1968 Syria had signed an international protocol banning the use of poisonous gas in wartime. It "assumed" that the Syrian regime was still strongly committed to its international obligations, it said.
For his part, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed his "deep concern" at reports that Syria was considering using chemical weapons, urging the Syrian government to "unequivocally" declare that it would not use the weapons or any other WMDs under any circumstances.
However, Abdel-Basset Sida, chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said that the Syrian regime might use the weapons. "A regime which slaughters children and rapes women would use this type of weapon," Sida said, urging the international community to take "necessary measures" to prevent any such use.
The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) also said that the regime had transferred chemical weapons and mixing equipment to airports on the borders and that the regime had issued the threat of using WMDs in order to manage the crisis through an attempt at destabilising the region.
The Israeli media quoted an Israeli military official as saying that the Syrian regime had started to transfer chemical weapons from storage sites to military bases away from battle zones, or to areas that were heavily guarded.
The source attributed this to the regime's fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of the Syrian opposition or to groups such as Al-Qaeda.
"It is no secret that Syria owns a large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons," Monzer Khaddam, spokesman for the Coordination Committee of Forces for Democratic Change, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"This is known to Israel, the US and others. However, talking about the existence of these weapons and the risks of using them or their falling into the hands of a third party is exaggerated."
"This does not mean that the weapons are completely secure in the light of the escalating chaos in Syria, but some international parties are using this issue to serve their own political goals, just as the regime is using it to sabotage a settlement that could be in the works. In talking about these weapons, the regime is sending a message to the world community and not to the domestic one."
The issue of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria has risen to the top of the international agenda against a background of continuing killings at the hands of the regime and the dead end in reaching a political solution to the crisis or taking action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Syria is not a signatory to the 1992 treaty banning the use of chemical weapons on the pretext that it could not give up the weapons as long as Israel continued to pose a threat to its security.
Over the past two decades, it has denied possessing the weapons, although according to Western intelligence reports Syria began manufacturing chemical components for weapons in 1973, including mustard gas, sarin gas and perhaps also the VX nerve agent.
Intelligence reports say that there are five sites suspected of housing chemical and biological weapons in Syria, including near the capital Damascus, in Homs, Hama, Aleppo and near the coastal city of Latakia.
No one knows the size of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and germ warfare capabilities because Syria is not a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which documents such capabilities.
However, the CIA estimates that Syria has significant chemical weapons capabilities. According to Major-General Adnan Salu, former director of the chemical warfare division in the Syrian army, Syria "possesses the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the Middle East".
According to Israeli sources, Syria possesses the world's largest arsenal of chemical weapons.
One recent intelligence report claims that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is protected by a special military unit dedicated to the purpose. The unit is loyal to the regime but not involved in the ongoing killing in Syria.
"Syria's declaration about its chemical weapons capabilities is a desperate act," one senior French diplomat told the Weekly. "We don't believe the regime will use these weapons against foreigners because it knows the response will be detrimental, but we believe that if it becomes desperate in its inability to crush the revolution it could use the weapons in a limited way against the revolutionaries and opposition."
"The regime is behaving like a wounded animal that will resort to anything in a fight."
The French source said that the US, Israel and Europe "are in close contact on how to deal with the nightmare possibility" of al-Assad losing control of the weapons and their falling into the hands of Salafis or of his passing them to Hizbullah.
Khaddam said the regime could "give" its arsenal of chemical weapons to Hizbullah under duress. "The regime has said that if Syria is subjected to foreign military intervention anything could happen, including its giving these weapons to Hizbullah or others," he said. "But I don't think matters will develop to this level in the foreseeable future."
No one really knows the exact size or location of Syria's chemical arsenal, or why this stockpile has been moved or to where.
In any case, Syria's admission of owning the weapons may turn out to be a military catastrophe in itself and it is certainly a political mistake, one of a series that Al-Assad has made since the beginning of the uprising some 16 months ago.