WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that there will be consequences if his forces use chemical weapons against the opposition in Syria. Obama spoke at an event here in Washington where he renewed America's commitment to prevent the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Obama's remarks at the National Defense University marked the 20th anniversary of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia.
But it was his stark warning about any Syrian government use of chemical weapons that made headlines, after a day in which Washington sent clear signals to Damascus about any movement or use of chemical weapons.
Obama said the United States will continue to support the legitimate aspirations of Syria's people, engage with and provide humanitarian aid to the opposition, and work for a transition to a Syria free from the Assad government.
And he had this message for President Bashar al-Assad.
"Today, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command - the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," said President Obama.
Obama said "we simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century."
The president, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta marked the accomplishments of the Comprehensive Threat Reduction Treaty, which is expiring.
Russia notified the United States in October that it would not renew the treaty, which in the two decades since the end of the Cold War has eliminated thousands of nuclear warheads and stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons.
Sharon Squassoni, director or the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there was more to the Russian government's decision not to renew the treaty.
"Reading between the lines, they may be using this as leverage to get more compromises from the U.S. or more action from the U.S. on ballistic missile defense. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Dmitry] Medvedev before him both wanted or identified the need that an agreement on ballistic missile defenses was a higher priority for them than cooperative threat reduction," said Squassoni.
President Obama noted Russian criticism that the treaty had not "kept up pace with the changing relationship." He called on Moscow to work to update the accord and to continue enhancing security for both countries.
Obama also said countries must press ahead with counter-proliferation efforts to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists.
"There is still much too much matériel - nuclear, chemical, biological - being stored without enough protection. There [are] still terrorists and criminal gangs doing everything they can to get their hands on it. And make no mistake - if they get it, they will use it, potentially killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, perhaps triggering a global crisis," he said.
Obama said that working to prevent nuclear terrorism remains one of his top national security priorities, adding that the world is moving closer to a future without nuclear weapons.