The Cable

Source: U.S. Couldn't Nail Down Chemical Weapons Chain of Custody

When the White House first publicly announced in late April its belief that the Assad regime in Syria had used chemical weapons on its own people, it stressed that this was only a strong suspicion -- not a certainty. Yes, they had blood samples that indicated exposure to deadly sarin gas. But they couldn't say for sure who handled those samples in the two weeks it took to get the blood into Western hands. "The physiological examples are compelling but without being able to determine the chain of custody, that's the key to confirming the use," one unnamed U.S. official told the New York Times earlier this week.

That chain of custody still hasn't been nailed down, an American intelligence source tells The Cable. But U.S. spy agencies nonetheless now feel confident that chemical weapons were used in Syria. And that, in turn, prompted the White House to make its more sure-footed announcement Thursday that Assad had, conclusively, gassed his opponents in Syria's civil war.

After an alleged chemical attack on the city of Aleppo in March, the U.S. and United States came into possession of at least three physiological samples that tested positive for indicators of sarin gas. Now, Western intelligence services have at least twice that number of blood, urine, and hair samples coming from a variety of battle zones around the country.

"The big thing that changed is an increase in the number of incidents," the source says. "It's impossible that the opposition is faking the stuff in so many instances in so many locations."

When the samples were combined with information from signals intercepts, overhead surveillance, and human tipsters, the intelligence community felt it had a powerful case. And once the intelligence community made its conclusion, the White House was, in a way, compelled to act.

It wasn't just that President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" (although, of course, that was vitally important for all sorts of geopolitical and strategic reasons). An obscure 1991 law, 22 USC 5604, states that the president shall notify Congress within 60 days if the executive branch determines that a foreign government "has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals."

Yet the White House's decision to announce the chemical weapons findings -- and the decision to provide "direct military support" to the rebels -- came rather quickly. "We had less than a week to prepare," the source says. "Nothing indicated a decision before this week."

And that quick move to announce may partially explain why the Obama administration's proclamation was so oddly short on specifics. There was that declaration of direct military support. But what shape that support would take, the administration wouldn't say, at least not on the record.

"Can't you even say small arms, RPGs, heavier weapons?" a reporter asked Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, during Friday's press briefing.

He answered: "We're just not going to be able to get into that level of detail about the type of assistance that we provide publicly here."

A State Department briefing with spokeswoman Jen Psaki added little clarity.

"So the United States has agreed to increase its support and aid to Syria, including direct military assistance," said a reporter. "Are you able to help us in any way explain exactly what is meant by that?"

"I cannot," Psaki said.

The CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Pentagon directed all questions to the White House. ("Please feel free to report the CIA declined comment," one spokesman emailed.) The White House, in turn, refused to verify any order for small arms, ammunition, or any other kind of military support for the Syrian opposition.

One reason for the secrecy could be that the shipment of arms to rebels would fall under the CIA's classified purview. (Providing arms to rebel groups within another nation's sovereign borders presents legal issues in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution.) But another reason for the veiled statements and the lack of interagency coordination could be that the rollout of the chemical weapons announcement was done in haste.

Regardless, the U.S game plan in Syria has yet to be explained in full by U.S. officials on record. That reveals a conundrum of American security policy in 2013. Our wars are technically fought in secret. Yet they're announced to the world.

The Cable

Syrian Rebels' Representatives Divided Over White House Arms Pledge

You'd think the Syrian rebels and their representatives would be uniformly overjoyed at the news that the U.S. is finally going to provide them with some small arms. Not exactly. In interviews with The Cable, spokesmen for the two groups lobbying for the anti-Assad forces in Washington struck noticeably different tones in reaction to the White House's pledge to ship weapons to the rebels. One faction is cheering for the American show of support. The other is grumbling that it's not enough.

The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only organization licensed by the U.S. government to provide financial and non-lethal support to rebel fighters, and the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), which boasts extensive contacts with rebel commanders, spent months lobbying Congress, the State Department and the White House for everything from small arms to anti-tank and and anti-aircraft weapons to body armor to advanced communications equipment for the rebels. But with a key component of that lobbying effort achieved following a White House assessment that the Assad regime "used chemical weapons" against the rebels, representatives of the groups are of two minds.

One of the major arguments against arming the Syrian opposition has been that the rebels are far from a coherent group. Some are pro-Western, others are al-Qaeda allies. The anti-government forces have at times been riven by in-fighting. Even their lobbyists in Washington can't seem to agree.

"This is very exciting," Dan Layman, director of media relations at SSG, said. "This is the result we've been working towards since the first major chemical attacks back in March. With this new guarantee of direct military support [Free Syrian Army commander Gen. Salim] Idris will enjoy new leverage that the opposition can take to the table at Geneva. I think this will make their attendance more likely and far more meaningful."

But Elizabeth O'Bagy, political director at SETF, doubted whether the administration's new pledge amounted to a significant policy change. "It's not enough," she told The Cable. "Small arms and ammunition really only get you so far against airplanes. And I wonder how much of this is simply an announcement of what they've already been doing on the ground," referring to pre-existing administration efforts to encourage Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country with assistance from the U.S.

"We're happy the administration has recognized the regime's chemical weapons use, but it's embarrassing that we didn't recognize it earlier," she continued. She emphasized SETF's advocacy of safe zones, a type of scaled back no-fly zone that would offer the rebels protection from Assad's air superiority.

Layman, meanwhile relayed a discussion SSG had with Idris "in the past two days," requesting weapons similar to M60 recoilless rifles, Metis and Konkurs antitank systems and SA-18 antiaircraft systems from Croatia. While eager to lobby Washington for all of Idris's demands, he was optimistic that the delivery of small arms would satisfy Idris's precondition of more weaponry before heading into the U.S.-Russia sponsored peace talks in Geneva that have proved difficult to get off the ground. "We of course still favor a political solution that includes Assad leaving power and authority being transitioned to an opposition civilian government," Layman said.

While both groups have similarly maximalist ambitions for arming the Free Syrian Army with any number of advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, their leadership have been known to clash: Specifically, SSG founder Louay Sakka and SETF executive director Mouaz Moustafa.

"It's a personal feud," said a source familiar with the rivalry, who compared it to fractions within the Syrian opposition movement in general. "This is exactly why the National Coalition can't get together because you have all these personal rivalries and feuds between the different members. It becomes difficult to coordinate."

Update: Mouaz Moustafa responds in an e-mail to The Cable

I as executive director of the Task Force want to say that I welcome the decision of the administration for providing greater military aid to the FSA and i call on the administration to take steps for a no fly zone.  But other than that I want you to know that I have always had only the best to say about Louay Sakka and I have no personal feud whatsoever with him.