In one of the sharpest warnings so far to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today "the whole world is watching" and that if Assad uses chemical weapons against his people, "there will be consequences."
Without saying specifically that the U.S. and its allies would take military action, Panetta said it is "fair enough to say that their use of those weapons would cross a red line."
Panetta's late-morning words came as NBC News said it has been told by American officials that Assad's forces have prepared such weapons, including some loaded with deadly sarin gas, for possible use against those who have been battling the regime for nearly two years.
Our original post and earlier update — "Clinton To Meet With Russian Diplomat; Sarin Fears Continue":
Some of today's news and analysis about the crisis in Syria:
-- "Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister To Meet." (The Washington Post)
"DUBLIN — In a potential sign that Russia's support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be softening, Moscow's top diplomat will meet jointly Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the United Nations envoy for Syria, a senior State Department official said."
-- "The Syrian Sarin Threat." (The New Yorker)
"Whatever the regime's real intentions with regards to its chemical weapons, the next chapter in Syria will be an ugly one, and before it is all over, many people are going to die—from bullets and bombs if not from sarin gas. Thanks to the boy-who-cried-wolf legacy of the Iraq invasion and the W.M.D.-that-weren't, it is not surprising that the alleged Syrian chemical weapons threat has thus far failed to cause panic in international circles. This could prove to be an unfortunate historical lesson, for, as things stand, there is no guarantee that they won't be deployed."
-- "Is Syria's Civil War Entering Its Final Act, Or Poised For A New Phase?" (Time)
"It may yet be premature to suggest that the 22-month civil war that has claimed more than 30,000 lives is near an end. The regime still has an overwhelming advantage in fire-power, analyst Joe Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War told the Washington Post this week, and the limits of rebel arms and organization may mean that their victory remains many months away."
-- " 'It's A Disaster': Life Inside A Syrian Refugee Camp." (NPR's Deborah Amos, on Morning Edition)
Update at 12:20 p.m. ET. Panetta Says Intelligence Raises "Serious Concerns":
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a short time ago that the U.S. intelligence community has information that raises "serious concerns" because it indicates the Assad regime is prepared to use chemical weapons in his fight against rebel forces, NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
According to Tom, U.S. officials say the intelligence indicates that Syrian forces may be mixing precursors for its most lethal chemical weapons, as rebel forces continue to gain ground.
Panetta today also again warned the Assad regime not to use those weapons, which include sarin. It's estimated that the Syrians have hundreds of tons of chemical weapons that can be placed in rockets and artillery shells.