Yesterday afternoon at Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin reported on internal U.S. government communications concluding that there’s a strong likelihood that Bashar Assad’s troops have used chemical weapons:
A secret State Department cable has concluded that the Syrian military likely used chemical weapons against its own people in a deadly attack last month, The Cable has learned.
United States diplomats in Turkey conducted a previously undisclosed, intensive investigation into claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, and made what an Obama administration official who reviewed the cable called a “compelling case” that Assad’s military forces had used a deadly form of poison gas.
The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to State Department headquarters in Washington last week, outlined the results of the consulate’s investigation into reports from inside Syria that chemical weapons had been used in the city of Homs on Dec. 23. . . .
An Obama administration official who reviewed the document, which was classified at the “secret” level, detailed its contents to The Cable. “We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23,” the official said.
As Rogin notes, this would seem to cross the president’s “red line” that he outlined in August, saying “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Obviously the report could be incorrect, but the president’s own diplomats apparently believe it, though not with absolute certainty. The Obama administration has very carefully tried to play down the report, saying that “The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical-weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical-weapons program” (the actual report that State apparently agrees with is here). That’s far from a denial that the conclusion of the report is correct, or that the relevant U.S. diplomats think it is.
Assad has apparently already been “moving around” plenty of chemical weapons, loading bombs and missiles with them, so in some sense the line had already been crossed — but that would be a necessary and useful precursor to actually using chemical weapons as a serious tactic, rather than a gesture to test red lines. (One might assert that the previous red line hasn’t been crossed because, even if the report’s true, we’re not talking about “a whole bunch” of weapons used yet, but in the statement today, an administration spokesman explained that the red line remains, “If the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons,” regardless of amount.) Rogin explains that “many believe that Assad is testing U.S. red lines” with the December action; the administration official he spoke to “warned that if the U.S. government does not react strongly to the use of chemical weapons in Homs, Assad may be emboldened to escalate his use of such weapons of mass destruction.”
I’m not sure this is plausible, and this casts doubt on the conclusion of the report, too — what does Assad gain by crossing the U.S.’s red line in a technical sense, without any tactical benefit, not in the way he actually would if he seriously crossed the line? He still doesn’t know if full-scale deployment of chemical weapons in an attempt to turn the tide of the rebellion, with thousands or tens of thousands of casualties, would prompt the West to do something about removing him. On that basis, I’m inclined to think the conclusions of this report may have been incorrect, or that the incident was an unintentional deployment of a less-serious though still banned chemical weapon. Further calling the veracity of the report into question is the fact that, as Heather Hurlbut points out in the Guardian, there are clear incentives for Syrians desperate for the West’s help to suggest that our arbitrary intervention threshold has been crossed (I don’t blame them, but it’s a good reason to be circumspect).
UPDATE: At today’s State Department press briefing, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland went further in its denial of the reporter than the White House had, saying:
That report from Foreign Policy did not accurately convey the anecdotal information that we had received from a third party regarding an alleged incident in Syria in December. At the time, we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used. . . . it is a responsibility of our embassies and consulates around the world, no matter what kind of anecdotal information you have, to report it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that either at the time or over the longer term it is considered credible by us. . . . When this particular message came in from Consulate Istanbul, we took it seriously, as we do with all such anecdotal reporting, and concluded at the time that we couldn’t corroborate it. We haven’t been able to corroborate it since, either.
So essentially, the State Department claims that the report was cabled to Washington, where officials then decided that it was either an unreliable report, or didn’t cross their “red line.” While this is perfectly legitimate, some questions do remain: State, lacking resources (or any publicly acknowledged U.S. government presence) in Syria, is relying on third-party and anecdotal information no matter what — in order words, unless someone spirits physical evidence of chemical-weapons use out of the country, they’re going to have to rely on the reports of witnesses and video and photo evidence, which was what composed the comprehensive report to which I linked above, and which members of the administration considered “compelling.” It’s obviously quite possible that Washington received other information indicating why this was not a use of chemical weapons, but it’s hard to imagine exactly what kind of definitive proof of a negative that might be. Obviously the U.S. shouldn’t base the breach of its red line solely on a report like this one, but there are also great incentives for the U.S. to deny such reports, citing lack of “corroborating evidence.” As I explained above, it seems unlikely that this was a deliberate use of chemical weapons by Assad, but it’s possible the U.S. hasn’t been as forthcoming about it as they could have been, for fear of embarrassment over inaction.