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Syrian threats - the drumbeats of war sound louder

In the protracted, bloody and complex Syrian conflict, practically every day brings a new development. Yesterday, it was the apparent confirmation by a foreign ministry spokesman that the country has a stockpile of chemical weapons, and might use them if it is attacked.

At a press conference in Damascus, Jihad Makdissi said that Syria was in "self-defence mode" but would never use its chemical and biological weapons against rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime: "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."

While it is no surprise that Syria has these weapons – thought to include nerve gas and biological agents – this is the first time that it has been confirmed. This explains why the government has been desperately back-pedalling today. The information minister Omran al-Zoubi said that Makdissi's comments had been "misconstrued": "When the foreign ministry spokesman says that Syria will not use chemical weapons against its people, then this doesn't mean that Syria has such weapons in the first place."

So why did Makdissi make his comments? His statement addressed two main concerns. The first was that chemical weapons may be used against the Syrian population, something he dismissed categorically. The second plays into the anxiety in the region that the weapons could be stolen amid the current chaos and fighting.

Israel, in particular, has expressed concern that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of jihadi-type groups, or be passed to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The country's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said, "We won't restrict ourselves and will respond very harshly if this happens." The Syrian opposition claims that the regime was rattled by the prospect of Israeli involvement, hence the reassurance that the weapons are secured for now, followed by the threat that they will only be used in the case of foreign intervention.

While this threat by Syria may have been intended as a deterrent, it was certainly counterproductive. Raising the spectre of non-conventional weapons is just about as provocative as you can get in the world of international politics. The US responded swiftly, with the Pentagon press secretary George Little saying: "They should not think one iota about using chemical weapons." William Hague and Ban Ki-Moon also condemned the comments, and the EU bloc issued a statement expressing its concern.

This negative response and ratcheting up of international hostility may explain the fact that the Syrian foreign ministry is now claiming that the aim of the statement was "to respond to a methodical media campaign targeting Syria to prepare world public opinion for the possibility of military intervention under the false premise of weapons of mass destruction (similar to what happened with Iraq)." This is a clear attempt to reverse the damage.

There is little reason to doubt that Syria is in possession of these weapons. Like Israel, the country is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the treaty which bans their production.

While the opposite may have been intended, the threat of chemical and biological weapons being deployed makes the possibility of a messy confrontation loom larger. Barack Obama warned that "the world is watching", adding that Syria will "be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons."

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes a senior Israeli official saying that while Assad is handling the weapons "responsibly… Israel is still very concerned because it is hard to know if these steps will be sufficient on the day Assad falls". This raises the possibility of an invasion, not to halt the bloodshed or to secure regime change, but against the opposition in the eventuality that Assad is pushed out. This is a serious cause for concern. Ever since a bomb attack last week killed four members of Assad's inner circle, it has looked ever more likely that his days as president are numbered. Given that the opposition is splintered, and the political landscape dominated by sectarian tensions, it is entirely possible that a post-Assad Syria would be unstable for some time to come. With western powers terrified of chemical weapons falling into what they see as "the wrong hands", the mainstream debate would then shift from humanitarian intervention to preventative war. This demonstrates powerfully- yet again – the importance of seeking a diplomatic, Syrian-led resolution to the conflict.

Syria's location means that Lebanon, Israel and Iran all have an interest in avoiding an all-out war. But that could change at any time as these country's interests are threatened. It is a vicious circle of threats, deterrents and posturing. Israel threatens war if the chemical weapons are used; Syria threatens to use the chemical weapons if war is declared. The ramping up of rhetoric on all sides merely makes the drumbeats of war sound louder.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist and former New Statesman staffer. She is also a published fiction writer.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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