Syria on the brink
By: Julie Bishop MP
There has been a serious escalation in the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after US president Barack Obama warned there would be "consequences" if chemical weapons were deployed in the civil war raging in that country.
The Syrian regime is reported to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons based on mustard gas, cyanide and sarin gas.
In the earlier stages of the conflict there were repeated calls for these stockpiles to be secured to prevent them falling into the hands of extremist groups, including al Qaeda and Hezbollah, which make up part of the opposition forces.
The government of Israel was particularly concerned about Hezbollah obtaining such weapons as they would have posed a serious threat from southern Lebanon during any future conflict.
That has changed somewhat in recent months as the Assad regime has suffered a series of major setbacks, including defections and desertions from the senior ranks of the military and political establishment.
The momentum of the battle appears to be currently in favour of the so-called rebel forces, with regime forces on the defensive and conceding major strategic and territorial positions.
President Obama warned President Assad this week that "The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable, and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also warned the regime against the temptation of using such weapons.
This is a red line for the United States. I am not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad administration has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice it to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.
There are also reports that the military forces of Jordan, Turkey and Israel have been put on high alert at the prospect of direct intervention in Syria should chemical weapons be used.
This sets the stage for a dramatic escalation of the conflict should the regime in its desperation deploy these terrible weapons.
In this environment, the reckless recent suggestion by Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr that President Assad be assassinated could hardly have come at a more sensitive time.
Senator Carr must reveal whether his call for the assassination of President Assad, in the midst of a bitter civil war, was made after consultation with nations that have a direct interest in developments in that region.
The US and its European allies would have plans in place to secure the stockpiles of chemical weapons in the event of a chaotic collapse of the regime.
It is vital that these dangerous weapons do not fall into the hands of extremists as that would pose a direct risk to nations all over the world.
The fall of the Gaddafi regime saw large amounts of conventional weapons and munitions spread beyond Libya's borders, with conflict spreading to Mali where an al Qaeda affiliate has taken control of large swathes of the country with reports of rockets and anti-aircraft missiles also finding their way to Gaza.
In response to President's Obama's statement, the Syrian foreign ministry gave a strong reassurance that, "Syria has repeatedly stressed to the American side directly, or through the Russian friends, that it will not use such weapons, even if they existed, against its people under any circumstance."
It is clear that President Obama is not acting on mere suspicion of the regime's intentions and has intelligence reports that indicate the regime's forces are preparing to use these weapons.
President Assad would be well aware of the fate of fellow dictators Gaddafi, shot and killed while hiding in a roadside drain, and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak who was sentenced to life in prison.
Senior figures in the regime would believe there would be no mercy from their captors if the regime were defeated and this could result in desperate actions, particularly if the regime fears it will be overrun by rebel units.
With Assad vowing to fight to the bitter end, there are few scenarios where Syria makes a peaceful transition from the current regime to the next phase of its history.
The Hon Julie Bishop MP, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Shadow Minister for Trade