Arab countries have offered to pay for an invasion of Syria by US forces amid new fears that President Assad’s regime possesses biological as well as chemical weapons.
US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that several states had promised they were ready to foot the bill for overthrowing Assad if America led the military operation.
Syria’s Arab neighbours are worried about the spread of the civil war and the possibility that the regime’s use of chemical or biological weapons could spill over into their backyards.
Mr Kerry spoke as Russia warned of a catastrophe if US missile strikes hit a nuclear reactor containing enriched uranium near Damascus.
Nearly six million people live in and around the Syrian capital and the Kremlin called on the IAEA, the United Nations nuclear agency, to assess the risk urgently as the US considers action to punish the Syrian regime for last month’s gas attack that killed hundreds.
‘If a warhead, by design or by chance, were to hit the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR) near Damascus, the consequences could be catastrophic,’ said a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
It warned that nearby areas could be contaminated by highly enriched uranium and that it would be impossible to account for the nuclear material after such a strike, suggesting it could fall into the hands of people who might seek to use it as a weapon.
Mr Kerry did not identify which countries made the invasion offer, although Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies have privately urged the US to topple Assad – whom they see as the main regional ally of their enemy, Iran.
‘With respect to Arab countries to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes,’ said Mr Kerry. ‘They have. That offer is on the table.’
While ‘boots on the ground’ have been ruled out at this stage, the Pentagon believes that it would require at least 75,000 troops to secure chemical weapons held at several sites around Syria.
The nuclear warning came amid reports in the US that Syria possesses the ingredients to manufacture biological weapons, including lethal bacteria and viruses, and has the equipment necessary to convert them into powders and aerosols to deliver their payload against military or civilian targets.
US officials believe Syria’s bio-weapons programme has been largely dormant since the 1980s. But its capability has alarmed other Arab nations.
On Sunday, the Arab League called for international action against Assad over his regime’s ‘ugly crime’ of using chemical weapons.
Any biological weapons would be particularly dangerous as they are designed to spread easily and leave little evidence of their origins.
President Putin has warned that an attack on Syria without UN support would be an ‘act of aggression’.
Moscow has been the most powerful ally of President Assad, shielding him from tougher UN resolutions and warning that a Western military attack on Syria would raise tensions and undermine efforts to end the country’s civil war.
The IAEA said in a report to member states last week that Syria had declared there was a ‘small amount of nuclear material’ at the MNSR, a type of research reactor usually fuelled by highly enriched uranium.
Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs, of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said the MNSR was a very small reactor and would not contain a lot of nuclear material. But he said there could be ‘a serious local radiation hazard’ if any nuclear material in the reactor were to be dispersed by a weapon strike.