Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

National and World

December 19, 2012

AP Interview: Syria rebels fear chemical weapons

ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) — The new Syrian rebel military commander said he is "very afraid" a cornered Syrian President Bashar Assad will unleash chemical weapons on his own people but the opposition does not have the means to seize and secure them.

Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from the Syrian army in July, told The Associated Press in an interview the rebels could defeat the regime within a month if supplied with anti-aircraft weapons. Without foreign military help, he estimated it could take up to three months.

Assad's troops are stretched thin and have lost ground in recent months, particularly in northwestern Syria, but have kept rebel fighters pinned down with massive air bombardments. Idris claimed that more than 120,000 armed men are fighting Assad's military, a figure difficult to confirm independently in the chaos of the civil war.

Idris said the rebels are trying to monitor the regime's chemical weapons sites.

Syria is said to have one of the world's largest chemical arsenals. Earlier this week, Syria's U.N. ambassador said the regime would not use such weapons under any circumstances. However, recent U.S. intelligence reports indicated the regime may be readying chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them.

The regime "can and will" use chemical weapons unless the international community forces Assad to leave, Idris said. "We know exactly where they are and we are watching everything," Idris said. "But we don't have the capability to put them under our control."

The West has shown little desire to intervene militarily in Syria's conflict, but President Barack Obama has said the regime's use of chemical weapons against the rebels would be a "red line."

Earlier this week, the Syrian U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, claimed extremist groups could use chemical weapons against Syrians and then blame the government.

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