BEIRUT — Syria threatened Monday to unleash its chemical and biological weapons if the country faces a foreign attack, a desperate warning from a regime that has failed to crush a powerful and strengthening rebellion.
The statement — Syria's first-ever acknowledgement that the country possesses weapons of mass destruction — suggests President Bashar Assad will continue the fight to stay in power, regardless of the cost.
"It would be reprehensible if anybody in Syria is contemplating use of such weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said during a trip to Belgrade, Serbia. "I sincerely hope the international community will keep an eye on this so that there will be no such things happening."
Syria is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas, Scud missiles capable of delivering these lethal chemicals and a variety of advanced conventional arms, including anti-tank rockets and late-model portable anti-aircraft missiles.
During a televised news conference Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stressed that the weapons are secure and would be used only in the case of an external attack.
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," he said. "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."
The Syrian government later tried to back off from the announcement, sending journalists an amendment to the prepared statement read out by Makdissi. The amendment said "all of these types of weapons — IF ANY — are in storage and under security." It was an attempt to return to Damascus' position of neither confirming nor denying the existence of nonconventional weapons.
In his comments to reporters, Makdissi also repeated the regime's assertion that the country's 17-month-old conflict, which activists say has killed at least 19,000 people, is not the result of a popular uprising, casting it instead as the work of foreign extremists looking to destroy the nation.
Israel and the United States are concerned that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants should the regime in Damascus collapse. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that his country would "have to act" if necessary to safeguard the arsenal from rogue elements.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that "any possible use of these kinds of weapons would be completely unacceptable."
"The Syrian regime has a responsibility to the world, has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens to protect and safeguard those weapons," she said.
Since last week, the anti-Assad fighters have claimed a stunning bomb attack that killed four high-level security officials in Damascus, captured several border crossings and launched sustained offensives in Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities and both regime strongholds.
The rebel advance has been a swift turnaround in the momentum of the uprising, which began in March 2011. Still, the opposition remains hobbled by divisions within their ranks and the fact that they are outgunned by the well-armed regime.