September 12th, 2013
02:51 PM ET
By Mick Krever, CNN
The head of the opposition Free Syria Army, General Salim Idriss, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday that he has intelligence that the Assad regime is moving its chemical weapons out of the country.
“Today we have information that the regime began to move chemical materials and chemical weapons to Lebanon and to Iraq,” General Idriss told Amanpour from inside Syria.
It’s a huge claim that would fundamentally shift everything U.S. intelligence officials have in the past said they believe about the situation in Syria, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr reports.
Namely, that Assad is wary to disperse the weapons because he knows the U.S. won't bomb them, that the security forces are in firm control of the weapons, and that there is a large, secure infrastructure in place moving them from rebel-held areas.
If true, notes Starr, US intelligence would be trying to ascertain whether it was a rogue element or a crack in the regime’s control.
The Iraqi government denied Idriss' claim after the interview aired.
"There is a political agenda behind this claim" Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told CNN on the phone from Baghdad. "We were the victims of chemical weapons under Saddam's regime and we will never allow to let any country to transfer chemical materials to our lands at all."
The Syrian opposition is afraid, General Idriss told Amanpour, that Assad will use then use those weapons again after any international mission to take control away from the regime.
“The regime,” he said, “is behaving like Saddam Hussein.”
General Idriss said that he had spoken on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“I had a call today with Mr. Kerry and he told me that he will discuss with the Russians how honest the regime is,” he said. “And if our friends discover that the regime is trying to play games and waste time, the threat of the strikes is still on the table.”
Earlier on Thursday, General Idriss told NPR that he had not received “any weapons from our American friends,” despite some reports that lethal aid had indeed started reaching the Syrian opposition.
“I can’t talk about weapons,” he told Amanpour. “We are getting now a lot of support from our American friends, but I can’t talk in detail about all kinds of the support.”
General Idriss dismissed Russia’s plan to have Syria destroy its chemical weapons as missing the point.
“We have many, many problems with the regime,” he said. “The chemical weapons is not … the only problem that we have.”
He cited the many thousands of Syrians who have died at the hands of conventional weapons.
Nonetheless, General Idriss said, if weapons inspectors were allowed into Syria to take control and eventually dismantle the chemical weapons, the Syrian opposition would protect them.
“When they come to our country we will do our best to help them,” he told Amanpour. “But I think the regime will prevent them to go to the locations and to do their job.”
“I think the regime will tell them, ‘Today you can’t go out of the hotels because the situation is very dangerous, and tomorrow you can’t go,’ and they will delay and delay.”