BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria acknowledged for the first time on Monday that it had chemical and biological weapons, saying they could be used if the country faced foreign intervention.
International pressure on President Bashar al-Assad has escalated dramatically in the last week with a rebel offensive in the two biggest cities and a devastating bomb attack which killed four members of his inner circle in Damascus.
Assad’s forces have launched fierce counter-offensives, reflecting his determination to hold on to power even at great cost and he has dismissed an Arab offer to grant him a safe exit in return for a swift step down.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use chemical weapons to crush rebels but they could be used against forces from outside the country.
“Any chemical or bacterial weapons will never be used … during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments,” Makdissi said.
“These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression.”
Damascus has not signed a 1992 international convention that bans the use, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, but officials in the past have denied that it had any stockpiles.
As violence escalates in Syria, insurgents have said they fear Assad’s forces will resort to non-conventional weapons as they seek to claw back rebel gains across the country.
Western and Israeli countries have also expressed fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as Assad’s authority erodes.
Defying Arab foreign ministers who on Sunday offered Assad a “safe exit” if he stepped down swiftly, the Syrian leader has waged a counter-attack in the capital to defeat rebels district by district.
Arab League ministers meeting in Doha urged the opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army to form a transitional government, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference in Doha.
Makdissi condemned calls for Assad to step down at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Qatar over the weekend, calling it a “flagrant intervention” in Syria’s internal affairs.
“We regret that the Arab League stooped to this immoral level in dealing with a founding member instead of helping Syria,” he said.
On Monday the army shelled rebel forces in the northern city of Aleppo and stormed the southern Damascus neighborhood of Nahr Aisha, breaking into shops and houses and burning some of them, activists said.
Video showed dozens of men in green army fatigues massing in the neighborhood, which looked completely abandoned. Men carrying machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers knocked and then kicked down doors and climbed through windows.
Assad’s forces have reasserted control over several Damascus areas since they seized back the central Midan district on Friday, following a devastating bomb attack that killed four of Assad’s top security officials.
“The regime strategy is to continue to confront the opposition, this time with much broader military response,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group consultancy.
“The expectation that the regime is out of firepower or collapsing right now is misplaced.”
But Assad’s forces have lost ground outside cities, ceding control of four border posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
Rebels also seized an army infantry school in the town of Musalmiyeh, 16 km (10 miles) north of Aleppo, and captured several loyalist officers, while others defected, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources inside Syria said.
In Aleppo, activists said residents were fleeing the rebel-held districts of Al-Haideriya, Hanano and Sakhour after army shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces.
A rebel fighter said the rebels had destroyed three tanks in the Hanano district and predicted weeks of fighting in Syria’s largest city.
“The regime is fighting for its survival. God willing by the end of Ramadan, Aleppo will be in our hands,” Mustafa Mohammad said referring to the Muslim holy month which started on Friday.
The fighting in Damascus, Aleppo and the eastern city of Deir al-Zor has been some of the fiercest yet and showed Assad’s determination to avenge the bomb attack, the most spectacular blow in a 16-month-old uprising against four decades of rule by the Assad family.
Rebels were driven from Mezzeh, the diplomatic district of Damascus on Sunday, residents and opposition activists said, and over 1,000 government troops and allied militiamen poured into the area, backed by armored vehicles, tanks and bulldozers.
Government forces executed at least 20 men, aged approximately 20 to 30, activists said by phone from Mezzeh.
“Most had bullet holes, one with as many as 18. Three had their hands tied behind their back. Some of the men were in their pajamas. Several had their legs broken or fingers missing. Others were stabbed with knifes,” said Bashir al-Kheir, one of the activists.
Opposition and rebel sources say the guerrilla fighters in the capital may lack the supply lines to remain there for long and may have to make tactical withdrawals.
The neighborhood of Barzeh, one of three northern areas hit by helicopter fire, was overrun by troops commanded by President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, 41, who is widely seen as the muscle maintaining the Assad family’s Alawite minority rule.
Maher’s role has become more crucial since Assad’s defense and intelligence ministers, a top general and his powerful brother-in-law were killed by the bomb on Wednesday, part of an assault by rebels seeking to turn the tables in a revolt inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing, but the Israeli military said it believed he was still in Damascus and retained the loyalty of his armed forces.
The unrest in Damascus prevented many officials getting to work last week but on Monday most government employees were back at their desks, one employee said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,261 people had been killed across Syria since last Sunday, when the fighting escalated in Damascus, including 299 of Assad’s forces.
This made it by far the bloodiest week in an uprising that has claimed the lives of 18,000 people. A total of 140 people were killed on Sunday, including 38 soldiers, the observatory said.
Regional and Western powers fear the conflict might become a full-blown sectarian war that could spill across borders, but have yet to find a coherent strategy to prevent this.