President Obama warned Syria on Monday that deploying chemical weapons is “totally unacceptable,” after what U.S. officials said were new intelligence reports that the Damascus government is preparing such munitions for possible use.
Obama told the government of President Bashar al-Assad that “there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable” if it used any part of its stockpile of chemical weapons, including sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent.
A U.S. intelligence official said “we have pretty good visibility” into Syria’s depots, and a second U.S. official said intelligence gathered in recent days has raised alarms. The second official said it was unclear whether the Assad government planned to move beyond the preparation stage to deploying the weapons.
After months of dogged, siegelike fighting, rebel forces have begun to make significant advances in Syria, raising questions about Assad’s durability and desperation.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the UK has decided to recognise the Syrian opposition coalition.
He told MPs the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
He said they were now a “credible” alternative to the Assad government.
In the absence of a diplomatic solution, he told MPs the UK would not rule out any action - subject to international law - to save lives.
Up to 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month conflict, the UK believes.
Those trying to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s government moved closer to a united front when the rival leaders of Syria’s rebels formed the coalition after months of bitter division.
A suicide attacker detonated a car bomb near a Syrian security compound in a remote, predominantly Kurdish town Sunday, killing at least four people, state media said, in a new sign that the country’s largest ethnic minority might be drawn into a widening civil war.
Opposition activists said at least eight Syrian intelligence agents were killed and several dozen people wounded in the attack in the northeastern town of Qamishli, more than 435 miles from the capital Damascus.
Syria’s more than 2 million Kurds, long marginalized, have largely stayed out of the fighting, though some have participated in protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
For the second time in a week, the bloody civil war in Syria spilled across border areas on Wednesday as rebel forces reportedly expelled government troops from a northern frontier crossing in an apparent expansion of the their effort to control infiltration and resupply routes in the campaign to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish schools in the region were closed for the day after intense overnight clashes as the rebels attacked the Syrian frontier post at Tal Abyad, south of the Turkish town of Sanliurfa, according to the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency.
Television footage on Wednesday appeared to show members of the insurgent Free Syrian Army standing on the rooftop and hauling down the Syrian flag at the Tal Abyad customs post, which is less than a mile from Turkey’s Akcakale crossing.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad pounded southern suburbs of the Syrian capital to flush out rebels on Sunday, residents said, as the government restarted the school year to give a semblance of normality to the war-torn country.
Since a pro-democracy movement started in March 2011, Assad’s administration has played it down to give an impression of order, even after the killing of thousands of peaceful protesters turned the uprising into an armed revolt.
Even now that there is heavy fighting in every province, Assad appears determined to continue ruling as in peacetime.
The state news agency said more than 5 million students would return to the country’s 22,000 schools, excluding an unspecified number damaged by war or housing refugees.
Already devastated by weeks of constant attacks this year, the Syrian city of Homs faced new terror Sunday as pro-regime forces executed 10 young men in the dissident stronghold, opposition activists said.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the Shammas neighborhood of Homs and gathered 350 young men in the square of a mosque, said the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group.
“The military began calling the residents from the mosques surrounding the Shammas neighborhood that all young men need to come down to the streets with their hands behind their heads,” the SNC said.
Another opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said three children were killed when regime forces fired on a minibus carrying residents fleeing the Shammas neighborhood.
But Syria, on state-run TV, blamed “terrorists” for that attack, saying three people, including two children, were killed on the bus.
Gunmen raided the headquarters of a pro-government Syrian TV station early Wednesday, killing seven employees, kidnapping others and demolishing buildings, officials said. The government blamed terrorists and described the killings as a “massacre.”
An Associated Press photographer who visited the Al-Ikhbariya station’s compound said five portable buildings used for offices and studios had collapsed, with blood on the floor and wooden partitions still on fire. Some walls had bullet holes.
Al-Ikhbariya is privately-owned but strongly supports President Bashar Assad’s regime. Pro-government journalists have been attacked on several previous occasions during the country’s 15-month uprising, although such incidents are comparatively rare.
Government forces shelled northern Syria with helicopters Saturday, opposition activists said, a day after U.S. officials reiterated calls for the troops to break ties with the regime.
At least two people died in the attacks in Aleppo and Homs, the Local Coordination Committees said
The new attacks come the same week U.S. officials applauded the defection of four senior Syrian military officers to the opposition, calling it another sign that the government of President Bashar al-Assad is weakening.
Jordan granted a Syrian pilot asylum Thursday after he landed his military jet in the neighboring country and announced his defection.
Just five months ago, Bassel Shahade, a film student at Syracuse University, was explaining to the hosts of Democracy Now! that he had to speak quietly. He had hunkered down in an apartment in Damascus, Syria and worried that soldiers outside could hear him.
“Thousands of detainees are still in the prisons,” Shahade said in a low voice. “Among them are tens of my friends. They are not terrorists. They are filmmakers, journalists, doctors, lawyers. They are very high intellectual people and activists.”
In the studio, host Amy Goodman worried for Shahade’s safety. “We can hear you just fine, Bassel, but we want you to be very careful,” Goodman said. “You can tell us you can’t talk. That is fine.”
Shahade, 28, was killed Monday while filming the aftermath of attacks by government security forces. The United Nations believes that 9,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed during the 14-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.
U.N. envoy Kofi Annan called Monday on “every individual with a gun” in Syria to lay down arms, saying he was horrified by a weekend massacre that killed more than 100 people, including women and small children.
Even Syria’s staunchest ally Russia joined sweeping international criticism of the mass killings on Friday in the Houla area, saying the government was at least partly to blame for one of the deadliest single events in the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule.
“I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla two days ago, which took so many innocent lives, children, women and men,” Annan said as he arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus for talks with Assad and other senior officials.
He called on all sides of the conflict to end the bloodshed, saying “this message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.”