Syrian officials have denied US claims that government forces have used chemical weapons against rebels.
The White House and other top Obama administration officials said yesterday that US intelligence had concluded with “varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government has twice used chemical weapons in its civil war.
But in Damascus’ first response to the US claims, a government official said President Bashar Assad’s military “did not and will not use chemical weapons even if it had them.” He instead accused opposition forces of using them in a March attack on the village of Khan al-Assad outside the northern city of Aleppo.
Both sides have accused each other of the deadly attack.
The official, who asked not to be named, said the Syrian army had no need for using chemical weapons “because it is capable of reaching any area in Syria it wants” without them.
Sharif Shehadeh, a Syrian politician, said the Syrian army “can win the war with traditional weapons” and has no need for chemical weapons.
Syria’s official policy is not to confirm nor deny it has chemical weapons.
Mr Shehadeh called the US claims “lies” and likened them to false accusations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction – a claim US policymakers had used to justify the invasion of that country in 2003.
“What is being designed for Syria now is similar to what happened in Iraq when Colin Powell lied in the Security Council and said Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction prior to the US invasion and occupation of that country,” he said.
President Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that could result in a significant military response. But the administration said that the new revelation would not immediately change its stance on intervention.
On the streets of Damascus, the two-year old conflict dragged on today, with government troops pushing into two northern neighbourhoods, triggering heavy fighting with rebels as they tried to advance under air and artillery support, activists said.
The drive was the latest in a days-long offensive by government forces in and around the capital, an apparent bid to secure Mr Assad’s main stronghold against rebel challenges.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting between rebels and soldiers backed by pro-government militiamen was concentrated in the Jobar and Barzeh areas. The Local Co-ordination Committees, another activist group, said troops also bombarded the nearby neighbourhood of Qaboun with mortars and multiple rocket launchers.
State-run news agency SANA said troops killed five rebels in clashes near the main mosque in Jobar. It added that many other “terrorists,” the term the government uses for rebels, were killed.
Syria’s conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Mr Assad’s regime in March 2011 but later degenerated into a civil war, which has left an estimated 70,000 dead.