MOSCOW: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was likely to fall and Nato must plan in advance to protect against the threat of his chemical arsenal falling into the wrong hands, a senior official of the Western military alliance said on Friday.
Nato also welcomed a US order to deploy two Patriot missile batteries and some 400 personnel near Turkey’s border with Syria while insisting the move was purely defensive.
Turkey, a Nato member, which has taken in thousands of Syrian refugees, says it needs the surface-to-air defence batteries to shoot down any missiles that might be fired across its border.
“We welcome the United States’ contribution of two Patriot missile batteries to augment Turkey’s air defences,” said spokeswoman Oana Lungescu after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta issued the order to deploy the Patriots before landing in Turkey.
“This is a strong commitment to Alliance solidarity and security,” Lungescu said.
“The deployment will be defensive only. It will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation,” she added.
“Its aim is to deter any threats to Turkey, to defend Turkey’s population and territory and to de-escalate the crisis on Nato’s southeastern border.”
Nato also welcomed the intention of Germany and The Netherlands to contribute two batteries each.
Fighting between the rebels and government forces has begun to rattle the heart of Assad’s power in Damascus in a conflict that has killed at least 43,000 people since the state began to crack down on street protests in March 2011.
Western powers have repeatedly warned of consequences should Damascus use chemical weapons against the insurgents in an attempt to cling to power and has expressed concern that the stocks may fall into the hands of extremists.
“My concern is not that the Syrian armed forces will use them, but if we assume that the Assad regime in one way or another will disappear, who will control the chemical weapons?” said General Knud Bartels, head of Nato’s Military Committee.
The 60-year-old Danish general, speaking at a Russian military academy on his first visit to Moscow, said he did not know how long the civil war in Syria would continue, but said developments on the ground suggested Assad would fall.
“You may say I am maybe assuming that Assad will disappear. I tend to believe that this is indeed the case,” he said.
On Thursday, Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he thought Assad’s government was nearing collapse and the new leader of Syria’s opposition told Reuters the people of Syria no longer needed international forces to protect them.
Meanwhile, European Union leaders said on Friday that all options were on the table to support the Syrian opposition fighting Assad, raising the possibility that non-lethal military equipment or even arms could eventually be supplied.
In their strongest statement of support for the Syrian opposition, EU leaders instructed their foreign ministers to assess all possibilities to increase the pressure on Assad.
British Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for an early review of the arms embargo.
“I want a very clear message to go to President Assad that nothing is off the table.” Cameron told reporters at the end of a two-day EU summit.
“I want us to work with the opposition ...so that we can see the speediest possible transition in Syria. There is no single simple answer, but inaction and indifference are not options.”