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
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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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."