PENTAGON— U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said intelligence reports suggest the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is considering using chemical weapons against advancing rebels.
The defense secretary’s confirmation there is intelligence suggesting Syria is considering using chemical weapons follows media reports that quoted U.S. sources as saying Assad’s forces have begun preparations to launch poison gas attacks.
“There is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned, that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” said Panetta.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Panetta repeated warnings to Assad, saying there will be consequences if the embattled Syrian leader decides to use chemical weapons against his own people.
“I am not going to speculate or comment what those potential consequences would be, but I think it is fair enough to say that their use of those weapons will cross the red line," he said. "The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered.”
Panetta did not say what that intelligence is. U.S. and allied officials say they have detected ‘movement activity’ around Syria’s chemical weapons sites. Media reports quote unidentified U.S. officials as saying the Assad government is moving components of sarin gas and loading it onto bombs.
Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Maqdad, alleged Thursday that Western countries were raising the threat of chemical weapons as an excuse to intervene.
The Assad government in July acknowledged it has chemical weapons, but said it would use them only against foreign invaders.