With mounting international alarm about Syria's cache of chemical and biological weapons, the embattled government in Damascus said Monday that its "unconventional" arms stockpiles were secure and vowed not to use them — unless provoked by an outside attack.
Syria publicly ruled out using such weapons against domestic rebels, but also seemed to explicitly threaten their use if foreign powers were to attack, sparking a new international outcry.
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said during a news conference broadcast from Damascus.
Makdissi, however, added one exception: If "Syria is exposed to foreign aggression."
That qualification immediately drew a condemnatory response from Western governments, including the United States.
"They should not think one iota about using chemical weapons," George Little, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters in Washington.
Syria's statements seemed designed to assure the world that the arsenal was secure, but also to dissuade any nations from intervening militarily — the great fear of President Bashar Assad.
The weapons "are secured and directly monitored by the Syrian armed forces and would only be used in the case of external aggression on the country," Makdissi said in the news conference, broadcast on state TV.
Washington and other capitals calling for Assad's ouster have denied any intention to intervene militarily in Syria's raging civil conflict, now entering its 17th month.
But Syria and its allies, including Russia and Iran, have charged that a Western-led intervention in Syria remained high on Washington's agenda. On three occasions, most recently last week, Russia has led efforts to block U.N. Security Council resolutions that, in Moscow's view, were stealth attempts to open the door to a foreign military assault on Assad's beleaguered government.
The comments from Damascus on Monday appeared to be the first time that Syrian authorities had acknowledged the possession of such weapons. Syria, however, has long been known to have a substantial stash of irregular arms, reportedly including mustard gas, cyanide and the nerve agent sarin. Some could be delivered in artillery shells or missiles.
The comments from Syria came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his sternest warning yet that Israel might take action to prevent Syria's weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of Islamist militants, who are a major part of the anti-Assad forces, or to Hezbollah, based in neighboring Lebanon. Hezbollah is a major ally of Assad, whose government is reported to have previously delivered arms to the Shiite group.
"This is something we'll have to act to stop if the need arises," Netanyahu told Fox News on Sunday.
U.S. officials are reported to have been urging Israel to maintain restraint, even as Washington makes its own contingency plans to ensure the weapons are secured.