Last week, The Cable reported on the contents of a secret State Department cable that conveyed evidence of the Syrian government's use of an unknown chemical agent against its own people last month.
The Cable has since obtained the text of the original cable, which includes new details about the consulate's investigation into the incident that killed seven civilians in the besieged city of Homs on Dec. 23. The cable confirms several aspects of our original report, but also shows that the cable was less conclusive than our previous item suggested.
"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 wrote. A U.S. official further told The Cable that the document made a "compelling case" that lethal poison gas was used.
The State Department and the White House disputed that contention, and the cable itself, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, notes that the consulate staff could not say definitively if chemical weapons were used in Homs last month.
It does, however, say that after their own investigation, State Department officers were able to confirm the basic facts of the deadly attack in Homs.
"On December 23, [Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO)] implementing partner ARK reported through their media project BASMA on a possible chemical weapons attack in Homs, Syria," the secret cable stated. "This is the first time fighters from Homs, who are fighting to break a three month long siege of the city, had come across such a possible attack. The suspected attack was originally reported by doctors receiving patients exhibiting symptoms of chemical exposure."
"CSO officers spoke with three contacts, including a former Chief of Staff of the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) chemical weapons arsenal, and confirmed the events and the symptoms and the number of casualties. CSO is not able to definitely say whether chemical weapons were in fact used in the December 23 attack."
The cable says that BASMA reported an odorless and colorless gas was dispersed in three areas in Homs: the Old City, Al Bayda, and Al Khalidiya. BASMA couldn't confirm the delivery method because the gas was dispersed at night and caused mass confusion. Initial reports said a regime ground vehicle was the delivery method, but later reports said a number of short range missiles were fired into rebel-controlled civilian areas, the cable states.
At times, the cable reflects the fog of war in a country where access to the battlefield is extremely difficult and dangerous. Some information contradicts statements from witnesses near the scene: For example, reporters told consulate staff the missiles released "clouds of white smoke," but two doctors who treated victims on the scene told The Cable that the gas was colorless but that several victims reported a pungent odor.
The consulate's own contacts reported that victims had symptoms that were "consistent with poisonous gas inhalation." A reporter for the Syria Life Network (SLN) told the consulate staff the symptoms included burning eyes, temporary blindness, relaxed and numb joints, unresponsiveness, nausea, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, and temporary paralysis affecting the spine.
One contact interviewed by the consulate staff reported that the agent used was suspected to be Agent 15, a chemical thought to be related to BZ, an incapacitating agent controlled under schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is not a party. This contact said the agent was treatable with Visostgman-Physostigmine, Alberodquisan, and Vitamin B6. The use of the drug Atropine worsened the condition of the patients, this contact said, which would be consistent with the theory that a BZ-like compound was used.
That account directly contradicts what the two doctors in Homs told The Cable. Both said that they used Atropine on the victims and that it improved their conditions, which would mean that BZ was not the gas used.
The consulate's report also noted that one contact did not believe the gas could have been tear gas or phosphorous because none of the victims had burns on their bodies, as would be common with a phosphorous attack.
The consulate's contact also reported that most victims had dilated pupils, which contradicts the account the two doctors gave to The Cable, in which they said that most victims had pinpoint pupils, also known as miosis.
BASMA and SLN contacts reported to the consulate that seven people were killed by the dispersed gas and 50 more victims were treated in a field clinic. The seven dead were buried and videos of their burial "clearly show the absence of visual injuries," the cable stated.
CNN reported Jan. 17 that the State Department conducted a subsequent investigation into the Homs incident after receiving the secret cable from Istanbul, whereby intelligence officers watched videos of the incident and concluded that the gas was not Agent 15 but rather an unspecified "riot control agent" that was misused by the Syrian regime.
"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," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Jan. 16.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.