The Cable

Syrian opposition leader calls on Obama to act

Following the latest alleged used of chemical weapons in Aleppo, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition's new Washington office called on U.S. President Barack Obama to step up his actions in Syria.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is testing and now crossing Obama's red lines, Najib Ghadbian, the special representative to the United States from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, said in an exclusive interview Wednesday with The Cable.

A lack of a firm U.S. response will only provoke Assad to further escalate his use of weapons of mass destruction, Ghadbian said.

"There's a lack of leadership on the part of the Obama administration. It's really the credibility of the Obama administration on the line," he said. "Some kind of response is a must. The international community is failing to take seriously its responsibility to protect civilians. If there's no response, it's really a license for escalation." 

Speaking from Istanbul, Ghadbian said that he and other Syrian opposition leaders have been in direct contact with doctors on the ground in Aleppo, and that the opposition leadership has collected "strong evidence" that the 25 deaths following what rebels say was a rocket attack Tuesday was caused by a limited use of chemical weapons.

"We started getting the reports from Aleppo from the hospitals that people were suffering the effects of some type of nerve gas," he said. "Two hours later there was a confirmation that there was a chemical weapon....Confirmation came from the hospitals where the patients and victims were treated."

The Syrian regime has claimed that it was the rebels used chemical weapons; Ghadbian said that was "too ridiculous" to warrant a response.

He said he hoped the international community would do its own independent investigation into the attack and then respond forcefully to send a message to Assad that this type of attack won't be tolerated.

"Where is the international community? This is clearly violating the red line. We haven't seen a strong reaction yet," he said. "This was defined as the red line and there was a clear warning against the use of chemical weapons. We need action."

Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem, President Obama said that he was waiting for the results of his administrations' investigations into the incident, acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons would be a "game-changer" for U.S. policy and noting that some in the Syrian government had expressed willingness to use such weapons. He also cast doubt on the Syrian regime's claim that the opposition was behind the alleged attack.

Ghadbian said the regime was testing the international community by using chemical weapons in a limited way and waiting to see if there was any consequence for violating Obama's red line. He asked for the United States to bring the issue before various international bodies, including the United Nations Security Council.

At a Wednesday hearing of the House Foreign Affair Committee, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said, "so far we have no evidence to substantiate the report that chemical weapons were used yesterday. But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports. We are consulting with partners in the region and in the international community."

Ford reiterated Obama's pledge that if Assad or those under his command used chemical weapons, there would be consequences and they would be held accountable. But he declined to specify what any of those consequences might be.

"I really do not want to speculate here about hypothetical situations. What I do want to underline is that the president has said there will be consequences and that we will seek strongly that the people who use chemical weapons be held accountable. Exactly what those consequences would do today, I cannot speculate on," Ford said.

On Tuesday, the Syrian opposition coalition also set up an interim government to exert executive power in the liberated areas inside Syria, to be led by interim Prime Minister Gassan Hitto, an American citizen who has lived most of his life in Texas. Ghadbian said that step was necessary to help the opposition provide Syrians in rebel-controlled areas with basic services and prepare in case of a sudden regime collapse.

The Obama administration had encouraged the Syrian opposition coalition not to set up an interim government at this time, Ghadbian acknowledged. Ford told coalition president Muaz al-Khatib that the establishment of an interim government carried the risk of further complicating the opposition's governing structure and making opposition unity harder to achieve.

"The State Department communicated to us their preference and we took that into consideration but made our decision to move forward," Ghadbian said.

Ghadbian also said the Obama administration is concerned that the establishment of an interim government could complicate efforts to establish negotiations with the regime in pursuit of a political solution to the crisis, which is the Obama administration's goal.

"We are not doing this to sabotage the attempt for a political settlement. We are talking about an interim government, not a transitional government," he said. "Assad is not the kind of person who is going to agree to any kind of political settlement that keeps him in power."

Despite opposing the formation of the interim government initially, Ford said Wednesday that he is now in favor of the move.

"Let me note here that the election of Ghassan Hito as prime minister for the coalition is a step forward, and we look forward to working with him and with the opposition coalition president, Muaz al-Khatib, in the weeks ahead," he testified.

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