Jordan aims to ward off Syrian chemical attack

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh gives a press conference March 13, 2012, in Prague.
AFP/Getty Images

(CBS/AP) AMMAN, Jordan - Jordan has taken precautions to ward off a possible Syrian chemical attack, Jordan's foreign minister said Tuesday, reflecting concern that Syria might use such weapons if the uprising there threatens the regime.

"The matter is of grave concern to us, and we have taken all necessary measures to confront that," Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said. He declined to say what measures were taken.

"We will not allow anything to threaten the internal security of the kingdom," he told reporters at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Minister William Hague.

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Israel and other countries have expressed concern about Syrian chemical weapons. Syria is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas, Scud missiles capable of delivering these lethal chemicals and a variety of advanced conventional arms, including anti-tank rockets and late-model portable anti-aircraft missiles.

Syria has not acknowledged possessing chemical weapons.

Western and Israeli officials told the Reuters news agency that President Bashar Assad appeared to be moving some chemical weapons from storage. The officials weren't clear exactly what caused the movements. The Israeli official told Reuters the action could be an effort to prevent the weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

Either way, the White House warned that the Syrian government "will be held accountable" for keeping secure any chemical weapons it may have.

"There are certain responsibilities that go along with the handling and storage and security of those chemical weapons," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One as it headed to San Antonio. "And we believe that the individuals who are responsible for living up to those challenges should do so and will be held accountable for doing so."

Syria has been traditionally suspicious of Jordan's pro-Western outlook and its longtime alliance with the U.S., as well as its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

Jordan's relations with Syria have been bumpy over the years, though there have been only two notable flare-ups, as Jordan tries to avoid riling its powerful neighbor.

Syria invaded Jordan during the 1970 conflict between the Jordanian army and Palestinian factions. The Syrian army moved to protect the Palestinians, who tried to set up their own government before being expelled.

In the wake of a 1982 massacre of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the Syrian city of Hama, Syria massed troops on Jordan's northern border after accusing the kingdom of supporting the Islamists.

No attack took place, but there was a wave of assassinations of Syrian Muslim Brotherhood activists who took refuge in Jordan. Amman blamed Syria.

"History repeats itself, and there is a good chance that Assad may do something foolish if he felt cornered and that his days are numbered," said Khalil Rawahneh, a retired Jordanian army colonel who served at the border with Syria in 1982.

"We don't have the means to fend off a chemical attack, if Assad sent his missiles flying over densely populated areas, especially the Jordanian capital," Rawahneh told The Associated Press.

He said Iran or its proxy Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah may also "try to attack us with chemicals to defend Assad and prolong his days in power."

A Jordan-based Western diplomat said Jordan has been "desperately shopping around" for an anti-missile defense system to deploy near its northern frontier, but that "no deal has been concluded yet." He declined to say if the United States has been approached.

He insisted on anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.