Is Syria threatening to use chemical weapons or not?

Is Syria threatening to use chemical weapons or not?

The big news out of Syria this morning is about chemical weapons — and whether or not President Bashar al-Assad will use them. But the headlines, it turns out, are an especially bad place to start if you want to get to the bottom of it. In fact, you would be forgiven for concluding that Syria is either ramping up or winding down preparations to use chemical weapons against either the rebels or an external force.

"Syrian regime makes chemical warfare threat," is the authoritative headline in this morning’s Guardian. It is almost the exact opposite of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) headline, which reads: "Syria moves to calm chemical weapon fears."

The New York Times, ever subtle, introduces a critical clause modifier: "Syria Says It Won’t Use Chemical Arms to Stop Rebellion." This is the line taken by Businessweek which leads with: "Syria Says it Won’t Use Chemical Weapons Against Insurgents."

If not against insurgents, then who? A Reuters headline holds the answer: "Syria says could use chemical arms against foreign intervention." Finally, the pieces are coming together. But what was the news item that headline-writers found so difficult to interpret?

The culprit, it seems, is Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi who made the following statement on Monday: "The ministry wants to re-affirm the stance of the Syrian Arab Republic that any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used – and I repeat will never be used – during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments…These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."