The Obama administration expressed fears on Thursday that the beleaguered Syrian regime may unleash chemical weapons on rebels who are pressing their campaign closer to the capital of Damascus.
"I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, according to ABC News.
"The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered," he said.
Panetta repeated warnings to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that there will be consequences if the embattled Syrian leader decides to use chemical weapons against his own people.
“I am not going to speculate or comment what those potential consequences would be, but I think it is fair enough to say that their use of those weapons will cross the red line," he said. "The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered.”
Reports on Monday indicated that engineers working for Assad’s regime have begun combining the two chemical precursors needed to weaponize sarin gas.
U.S. officials said on Wednesday that the Syrian military is prepared to use chemical weapons against its own people and is awaiting final orders from Assad.
The officials stressed that as of now, the sarin bombs hadn't been loaded onto planes and that Assad hadn't issued a final order to use them. But if he does, one of the officials said, "There's little the outside world can do to stop it."
The heightened concern comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Thursday with the UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the options to end the conflict in Syria.
Before the meeting began Clinton said, according to ABC News, "Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways. The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We've made it very clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons."
The meeting last for 40 minutes and a senior State Department official said, "It was a constructive discussion focused on how to support a political transition in practical terms. The U.S. and Russia committed to support Special Envoy Brahimi's efforts in that regard. The next step will be a meeting in the next few days between Special Envoy Brahimi and senior officials from the United States and Russia to discuss the specifics of taking this work forward."
U.S. President Barack Obama told Assad on Monday not to turn chemical weapons on his own people, saying, “Today, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching, the use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable.
"If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," he added.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Sky News on Wednesday that international intervention in Syria would be "dangerous for the whole region.”
Mekdad also said that Assad will "never, ever" leave Syria and said that "even if" Syria has chemical weapons it would not use them against its own people.
"We are saying if we have them we shall not use them against our people," Mekdad said.