Concern over Syria chemical weapon threat


EUROPEAN FOREIGN ministers expressed serious concern over Syria’s threat to use chemical weapons against any foreign intervention aiding the rebel campaign against the Assad regime.

The ministers implored Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to withdraw his troops from besieged towns and cities and also expressed anxiety about the spillover effects of the crisis on neighbouring countries.

“The EU is seriously concerned about potential use of chemical weapons in Syria,” the ministers said yesterday after talks in Brussels.

Although Syria’s threat drew strident criticism from many individual ministers, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton downplayed the issue.

At the same time, Germany said the threat was monstrous and Britain said it was unacceptable.

“The existence of chemical weapons in any area of conflict is a cause for concern,” Baroness Ashton told reporters.

“As far as I’m aware there is no reason to have immediate concern about the possibility of them being taken out, or moved and so on. But information is difficult to obtain as you can imagine.”

The Assad government has weakened in the face of the expanding rebel onslaught, fuelling expectation that it will eventually crumble. Although the ministers say the main responsibility for the turmoil rests with the regime, there is concern in diplomatic circles about the lack of unity among opposition factions and the potential for continued violence in a new dispensation.

“I would say – in a nutshell – there’s a real sense of urgency, a real sense that this is the beginning of the end if you like,” said Minister of State for Europe Lucinda Creighton, who represented the Government.

“There are factions certainly amongst the opposition groups who could potentially present a cause for concern,” she added.

“I think it’s pretty apparent that unlike in other uprisings in some of the Arab Spring counties, there isn’t a clear opposition that’s an obvious partner for EU member states and for the international community.

“What we’re looking to achieve is a consensus among at least some of the opposition groups and factions to come together and to agree on a list of objectives they can pursue in a unified way.

“I think we’re quite a distance from achieving that at the moment.”

Baroness Ashton called on opposition groups “to join together in so far as they can in the offer they make to all the people of Syria for an inconclusive democratic Syria in the future”.

The ministers intensified sanctions against the regime and took steps to toughen the enforcement of the EU arms embargo against Syria by compelling member states to board and inspect any vessel or aircraft bound for the country if they suspect the cargo contains arms or equipment for internal repression.

Meanwhile, the European Commission pledged an additional €20 million for medical care, shelter, food and water for Syrians affected by the crisis inside and outside the country.

With more than 600,000 Syrians displaced by the conflict, the move brings to €63 million the amount of money the commission has set aside for relief.