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Musa A Keilani: Syrian chemical threat
May 01, 2013
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After months of silence, the White House has announced it now believes the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad has used chemical weapons in its bloody, two-year civil war.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin,” the administration of President Barack Obama said.

The reported attack clearly violated Obama’s “red line,” leading to some unspecified action presumed to be military in nature. The likelihood of a direct US military intervention to end the Syrian crisis is greater than ever.

Last year, Obama set what would be a “red line” for his administration, beyond which arguments against going to war in Syria would lose their meaning.

In August 2012 he said, “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.”

In December, reports said that the Assad regime was “moving around” stockpiles of chemicals, with some analysts saying they were being mixed and possibly weaponised, but the Obama administration remained silent.

According to the New York Times, Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted.”

“His warning against ‘moving’ weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements,” being replaced with a “new warning” that “if Mr Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbours, he will face unspecified consequences.”

Members of Congress have urged Obama to take action to “secure” Syria’s chemical weapons.

According to Republican Senator John McCain, it was now up to Obama to coordinate a response that prevents such weapons, including the agent Sarin, from falling into the hands of extremist groups.

Obama said that if “Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game-changer, that it would cross a red line. I think it’s pretty obvious that a red line has been crossed,” McCain told reporters.

“We have to have operational capability to secure these chemical weapon stocks,” he added. “We do not want them to fall into the wrong hands, and the wrong hands are a number of participants in the struggle that’s taking place in Syria.”

Cain called for increased White House pressure on Russia and Iran to stop supplying weapons to Assad, and greater commitment to aid Syria’s rebel groups fighting Damascus.

Jordan’s request for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council has become all the more relevant now since it has to consider the Syrian conflict as a form of  threat to international peace, as well as  to review the situation.

Jordan said in its appeal to the UN that the huge influx across the border since the Syria conflict erupted in March 2011 “threatens the security and stability of our country.”

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people a day are crossing the border and that Jordan believes the crisis has “implications for international peace and security.”

Jordan, which hosts more than half a million Syrian refugees, fears being overwhelmed and drawn into the crisis.

Assad has openly threatened Jordan, accusing the kingdom of helping to arm the Syrian rebels.

Jordan did not want any part of the conflict in Syria and always called for a political solution to the crisis. But it was dragged into it by the influx of Syrian refugees, who now pose a major burden for the kingdom’s resources.

International and regional help has been flowing, but never to the extent of being enough to stop the drain in Jordan’s resources at a time when the kingdom is also facing major economic problems.

Jordan also faces increasing threats from militant groups residing inside the country, closely watching for opportunities to exploit the situation to their benefit.

Fighting from the Syrian conflict has occasionally spilled over the border into Jordan; Jordanian troops occasionally engage armed groups along the Syrian border. A Jordanian soldier was killed at the border on Oct.22 while trying to prevent militants from infiltrating Syria. In August, a Jordanian soldier was injured while assisting Syrian refugees fleeing the regime to enter Jordan.

Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensur told parliamentarians in his policy statement that the Syrian conflict threatens the stability of Jordan.

Washington has ordered the deployment of 200 Special Forces soldiers to Jordan to bolster the kingdom’s defences in case of the sudden collapse of the Assad regime. The soldiers will also counter any Syrian chemical attack against Jordan.

But that is nowhere near what Jordan wants.

While it is unlikely that Assad would go to the extent of ordering a chemical attack against Jordan, the embattled president who is now fighting to defend Damascus could turn in any direction if he felt his back is against the wall. That possibility immediately calls for protection for residents of Jordan against chemical weapons. It is beyond the resources of the kingdom to offer that on its own. Therefore, the best solution is for an international force to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. Let us hope that the Syrian regime has not yet dispersed its chemical weapons to different parts of the country, making it difficult to pinpoint them and secure them.

At the same time, such dispersal also risks the weapons ending up in the hands of militant groups.

For Jordan the ideal solution is a political solution to the crisis in Syria that would restore stability and security of that country that would lead  to the orderly return home of the Syrian refugees. In the meantime, it stands in need of urgent international assistance to deal with the refugee problem.
The author, a former Jordanian ambassador, is the
chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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