Syria on Monday warned that it could use chemical weapons to combat “external aggression”, but never inside the country against its own people.

“Syria will not use any chemical or other unconventional weapons against its civilians, and will only use them in case of external aggression,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi told a media conference in Damascus.

Mr. Makdisi’s blunt warning followed the feverish offensive that Syrian troops have been carrying out against remnants of the armed opposition groups in Damascus and fringes of Aleppo — Syria’s commercial capital.

The Syrian army began its counterattack following the devastating bombing in Damascus on Wednesday inside the national security bureau, which decapitated the country’s top security leadership — including the Defence Minister and the national security chief.

“Any stocks of chemical weapons that may exist will never, ever be used against the Syrian people,” Mr. Makdisi stressed. However, the option of using these weapons in the event of foreign attack was left open by the Syrian official who said that based on their professional judgment the “generals will be deciding when and how we use them”.

Despite Syria’s pledge against any internal the use of chemical agents, Mr. Makdisi, nevertheless, raised an alarm about Syria’s foes mounting a “false flag” covert operation that would be blamed on Syria but carried out by others. He pointed out that there was a “possibility of foreign parties arming terrorist groups... with bacteriological weapons that might explode in a village, so that Syrian forces can then be blamed”.

Syria’s warning of the possible use of chemical arms as tactical weapons seemed to counter the threat over the weekend from the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, who had asserted that the Israeli military was preparing “for a situation where we would have to weigh the possibility of carrying out an attack” against Syrian weapons arsenals.

The highly fluid and tense situation in Syria since Wednesday has now begun to sow fissures inside the Arab League — the 22-nation grouping — which, during a foreign ministerial meeting in Doha on Monday, called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and avail an offer for a “swift exit” to an undisclosed location.

But Iraq, a prominent member, promptly and firmly rejected the League’s position.

“The Iraqi delegation put forward their reservation,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said, as cited by Reuters. “It is not usual for the ministerial council to ask someone to leave. This is the sole responsibility of the Syrian people and others should not interfere.”

Mr. Makdisi also admonished the League for adopting a position that was a “flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs”. “We are sorry that the Arab League has descended to this level concerning a member state of this institution,” he observed. “All their statements are hypocritical.”

Inside Damascus, the government’s offensive to flush out the armed opposition from remaining parts of the city appeared to gather further momentum. Syrian state TV on Monday showed images of house-to-house searches by troops, while its website claimed that scores of “terrorists” had either been killed or arrested.

Syrian forces had also engaged opposition fighters at Qebtan al-Jabal — to the north of Aleppo — and in the al-Baath neighbourhood in the city of Hama.

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