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.
The consul general's report followed a series of interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors, in what the administration official said was one of the most comprehensive efforts the U.S. government has made to investigate claims by internal Syrian sources. The investigation included a meeting between the consulate staff and Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-level defector who once was a major general in Assad's army and key official in the Syrian military's WMD program.
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.
The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross the "red line" President Barack Obama first established in an Aug. 20 statement. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," Obama said.
To date, the administration has not initiated any major policy changes in response to the classified cable, but a Deputies Committee meeting of top administration officials is scheduled for this week.
The report confirms the worst fears of officials who are frustrated by the current policy, which is to avoid any direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels and limit U.S. aid to sporadic deliveries of humanitarian and communications equipment.
Many believe that Assad is testing U.S. red lines.
"This reflects the concerns of many in the U.S. government that the regime is pursuing a policy of escalation to see what they can get away with as the regime is getting more desperate," the administration official said.
The consulate's investigation was facilitated by BASMA, an NGO the State Department has hired as one of its implementing partners inside Syria. BASMA connected consular officials with witnesses to the incident and other first-hand information.
The official 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.
"It's incidents like this that lead to a mass-casualty event," the official said.
Activist and doctors on the ground in Homs have been circulating evidence of the Dec. 23 incident over the past three weeks in an attempt to convince the international community of its veracity. An Arabic-language report circulated by the rebels' Homs medical committee detailed the symptoms of several of the victims who were brought to a makeshift field hospital inside the city and claims that the victims suffered severe effects of inhaling poisonous gas.
Activists have also been circulating videos of the victims on YouTube and Facebook. In one of the videos, victims can be seen struggling for breath and choking on their own vomit. (More videos, which are graphic, can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.)
Experts say the symptoms match the effects of Agent 15, known also by its NATO code BZ, which is a CX-level incapacitating agent that is controlled under schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is not a party.
"The symptoms of an incapacitating agent are temporary. If someone is exposed to BZ, they are likely to be confused, perhaps to hallucinate," said Amy Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "While it is not good news that a chemical agent of any kind may have been used in the Syrian conflict, this Agent 15 is certainly on the less harmful end of the spectrum of chemical warfare agents believed to be in the Syrian arsenal."
The Cable spoke with two doctors who were on the scene in Homs on Dec. 23 and treated the victims. Both doctors said that the chemical weapon used in the attack may not have been Agent 15, but they are sure it was a chemical weapon, not a form of tear gas. The doctors attributed five deaths and approximately 100 instances of severe respiratory, nervous system, and gastrointestinal ailments to the poison gas.
"It was a chemical weapon, we are sure of that, because tear gas can't cause the death of five people," said Dr. Nashwan Abu Abdo, a neurologist who spoke with The Cable from an undisclosed location inside of Homs.
Abdo said the chemical agent was delivered by a tank shell and that the range of symptoms varied based on the victim's proximity to the poison. The lightly affected people exhibited gastrointestinal symptoms, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, he said. Victims who received a higher concentration of the poison, in addition to the gastrointestinal symptoms, showed respiratory symptoms as well.
"The main symptom of the respiratory ailments was bronchial secretions. This particular symptom was the cause of the death of all of the people," he said. "All of them died choking on their own secretions."
The doctors said their conclusion that the poison was a chemical agent and not tear gas was based on three factors: the suddenness of the deaths of those who were directly exposed, the large number of people affected, and the fact that many victims returned with recurring symptoms more than 12 hours after they had been treated, meaning that the poison had settled either in their nervous systems or fat tissue.
"They all had miosis -- pinpoint pupils. They also had generalized muscle pain. There were also bad symptoms as far as their central nervous system. There were generalized seizures and some patients had partial seizures. This actually is proof that the poison was able to pass the blood-brain barrier," Abdo said. "In addition, there was acute mental confusion presented by hallucinations, delusions, personality changes, and behavioral changes."
The doctors on the scene said they were not able to pinpoint the poison because they lacked the advanced laboratory equipment needed. They took blood, hair, saliva, and urine samples, but those samples are no longer viable for testing because too much time has passed, they said.
"We took many samples, we kept them, but we cannot get them anywhere because we are in the besieged Homs area," he said. "We are not 100 percent sure what poison was used, but we can say with firm statement that it was not tear gas, that's for sure."
The State Department, in response to inquiries from The Cable, declined to comment on the secret cable from Istanbul or say whether or not chemical weapons were used in the Homs attack, but said that the administration believes Assad's chemical weapons are secure.
"I'm not going to comment on the alleged content of a classified cable," State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell told The Cable. "As you know, the United States closely monitors Syria's proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities, and we believe Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains secured by the Syrian government. We have been clear that if Assad's regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons or failing to secure them, it will be held accountable."
Shifting red lines
The White House's threats to react to Assad's WMD activity have softened over time. In Obama's Aug. 20 statement, he indicated that "a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around" would trigger U.S. action.
Obama then shifted his warning to Assad about red lines in December, after intelligence reports stated that the Syrian regime had moved some precursor chemicals out of storage and mixed them, making them easier to deploy. Now, Obama's red line is that the United States will react if Syria uses these weapons.
"The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable," Obama said Dec. 3, directing his comments at Assad. "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable." That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: "we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur."
Outside analysts worry that the administration's red line may have shifted again.
"Given the fact you have that in a cable, this indicates that the Obama administration may not simply jump into the conflict because chemical agents are used," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Assad has a much better idea now of what he can do and get away with."
"This shows that actually the red line on chemical weapons is not clear and that the regime may be able to use some chemical agents, and the response might not be immediate," he said.
On Jan. 11, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the U.S. government and the international community doesn't have the capability to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons if he chooses to do so.
"The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable... because you would have to have such clarity of intelligence, you know, persistent surveillance, you'd have to actually see it before it happened, and that's -- that's unlikely, to be sure," Dempsey said. "I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And to that extent, it provides a deterrent value. But preventing it, if they decide to use it, I think we would be reacting."
Abdo, the Syrian neurologist, said that the doctors treating civilians inside Homs have run out of even the basic medicines they have been using to bring a level of comfort to the victims, such as the drug atropine.
"We hope this information will reach the people in the American government so maybe they will help us," he said. "If the regime does this one more time, we don't have the antidote in our hands anymore and we can't treat it. It's very urgent."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.