The Cable

U.N. Slowing Its Own Chemical Weapons Investigation In Syria

The world's governments are demanding that Syria immediately let United Nations inspectors onto the scene of alleged chemical attacks that killed as many as 1,800. But even if Bashar al-Assad's regime gave the inspectors permission to visit the disputed battlefields right now, they still couldn't leave. The U.N. is blocking its own inspectors, at least for the moment.

Kevin Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, told a small group of reporters at U.N. headquarters on Friday that he hasn't given the inspection team a green light to visit the site of the supposed attacks. His office is still carrying out a security assessment to see if it is safe enough to go.

"It's an active war zone in Damascus," said Kennedy, who has gained extensive experience managing U.N. humanitarian operations in the world's deadliest trouble spots over the past 20 years. "I was there a few months ago: you hear every day impacts, shells, there might be 10 in a day, you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes, you can see artillery. You get shot at, I was only there for 3 and ½ days as a visitor and my car was shot, we were shot at twice," including once by an unidentified sniper.

Britain and France issued strong statements in support of allowing the U.N. investigators to visit the Damascus suburb where locals say hundreds, and possibly thousands, were killed with nerve gas. "We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said during an interview on Friday. Even the Assad regime's biggest ally, Russia, is now calling on "the Syrian government to cooperate with the U.N. chemical experts," as Moscow's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

But Kennedy said it's not quite that simple. "There's places in Syria we've not gone to for months simply because it's just not safe to go and we can't mitigate the risk," he said.

On Thursday night, U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon pleaded with the Syrian government to "extend its full cooperation so that the mission can swiftly investigate this most recent incident."

"This is a grave challenge to the entire international community," he added. "I can think of no good reason what any party-either government or opposition forces-would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter."

Meanwhile, his inspectors wait -- as the world tries to figure out why either side in Syria's awful civil war would've launched a chemical attack with U.N. inspectors so close by. (Russia is hinting at rebel responsibility for the attack, while the U.S. and its allies are blaming Assad's forces.) "We're still trying to work out why the regime chose to do it on this scale with the U.N. in spitting distance, but there are a couple of working theories," an American intelligence official told The Cable. "One is that this was planned well in advance and no one called it off at the last minute. Another is that most of the regime military assets are off fighting in the north of the country, so they had to resort to using chemical weapons as a force multiplier" -- a way to fight off large numbers of rebels with a comparative handful of troops.

In recent weeks, some military analysts have noted the opposition gaining strength in and around the Damascus suburbs. Perhaps Assad noted it as well, the thinking goes, and decided to try to put an end to it. 

The U.N. chemical weapons team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin a two-week investigation into more than a dozen allegations of chemical weapons use. Sellstrom, who has received assurances from the Syrian government that he can visit three of those sites, has appealed to the Assad regime to let his team visit a cluster of towns in the suburbs of Damascus to test claims by opposition figures that more than 1,000 civilians were killed in a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government. Syrian officials have dismissed the claims as "fabricated," noting that conducted a chemical weapons strike while U.N. weapons inspectors were in the county would defy logic.

But outside observers, reviewing YouTube videos of the attacks and the accounts of the doctors who treated the victims, are becoming increasingly convinced that chemical weapons were used. "All of this evidence does suggest some kind of chemical agent," Charles Duelfer, the former chief weapons inspector for the United States, told Al Jazeera America on Thursday night. "These are not the effect of conventional munitions. There are no external wounds. There are all the signature symptoms of nerve damage."

Now it's up to the U.N. inspectors to prove it. In a sign that Sellstrom has yet to prevail upon the Syrian government to visit the sites, Ban dispatched his top disarmament chief, Angela Kane, to Damascus to make the case for access. In the meantime, Reuters reporters, Assad opponents have managed to "smuggle tissue samples to U.N. inspectors from victims of Wednesday's reported mass poisoning."

Kennedy said his department "will do a security risk assessment based on what we know, what we can see....We will make a recommendation whether, and this goes for any mission, not so much the Syrian mission, if it is a go or a no go." Asked if it were possible the inspectors would not get a green light, he said "we'll see what the security assessment says about that when it comes out. It's a moveable feast."

With additional reporting by John Hudson

Follow Colum Lynch on Twitter: @columlynch

The Cable

Congress' Doves Rethinking U.S. Intervention After Syria's 'Chemical' Attacks

For months, a group of dovish lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been fighting against U.S. military involvement in Syria. But after Wednesday's stunning allegations of a massive chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus, even some of these doves are opening the door, just a bit, to intervention in the Syria's horrific civil war.

"If it looks like this is the beginning of a long term chemical weapons campaign from Assad, even I would reevaluate whether the United States needs to step in," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told The Cable on Thursday.

In May, Murphy was the only senator to join Kentucky libertarian Rand Paul in support of a defeated amendment to prohibit weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels. He urged caution and spoke about the risks of intervention at the time. And, for the moment, he remains opposed to U.S. military entanglement in Syria. However, when pressed in an interview, Murphy conceded that he may reconsider that position after a series of alleged nerve gas attacks that Syrian opposition forces say killed as many as 1,800 people. Eyewitnesses say many of the victims were children.

"If the Assad regime has begun a campaign of systematic chemical weapons attacks, clearly that's going to alter even my analysis," Murphy said.

And he isn't the only skeptic of intervention who's now open to the possibility -- however remote -- of greater U.S. involvement. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), one of the House's most vocal opponents of arming the Syrian rebels, told The Cable on Thursday that he's now open to U.S. forces bombing the Syrian regime's chemical weapons delivery systems.

"I think we ought to look at ways of degrading Assad's chemical weapons use in the future," he said. "Some of the mechanisms Assad is using to deliver chemical weapons we could potentially take kinetic action against." ("Kinetic action" is the military euphemism for striking a target with bombs, missiles, or other weaponry.)

Both lawmakers stressed their deep reluctance about further U.S. intervention in Syria and Murphy said he'd only consider it if there was clear evidence of a continued chemical weapons assault by Assad -- something that has yet to be proven. Still, Murphy and Schiff's sober reluctance stands in stark contrast to a groundswell of hawkish lawmakers clamoring for a strong response from the U.S. military in light of the alleged chemical attack.

"The U.S. has two options: continue to largely stand on the sidelines as the regime slaughters its own people, or tip the balance of power against a brutal dictator by degrading its ability to attack civilians," said Rep. Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday. "If we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act soon." 

Sen. John McCain echoed Engel's enthusiasm on Thursday, saying intervention in Syria could be done "easily."

"We can supply the right kind of weapons to rebels and to establish a no-fly zone by moving patriot missiles up to the border. This can be done very easily," McCain said.

As it stands, the Syrian opposition claims that authorities fired an onslaught of chemically-laced rockets on Wednesday killing between 1,000 and 1,800 people. The Assad regime calls the claims "absolutely baseless." On Thursday, a State Department official explained the difficulty of making any determination on the attack in a timely manner.

"At this time, we are not able to conclusively determine whether chemical weapons were used," the official told The Cable. "One of the problems is access -- we have long called for full, unfettered access from the Syrian government."

Meanwhile, eyewitnesses on the ground have described the attack in the most harrowing of terms.

Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition activist in the town of Douma, told The Cable during a Skype conversation that when the attacks first came, she thought it was no big deal. Then she went to the local clinic. "Usually, when attacks like this happen, we see it's injured people, but usually very few. So when we got the news yesterday -- two after midnight - we thought it was the same thing," said Zaitouneh. "Then we got terrible, terrible news -- hundreds of people at the medical points. First time we see this much injured people."

"It was something different this time. They're not able to breathe. Eyes very red. Circles in the eyes very narrow. They cannot see very well. Their mouths, something comes out white,"  Zaitouneh added.

The victims had a range of symptoms. Some were in shock -- one little girl couldn't even recognize her own mother. A handful of others were convulsing. "The nurses, they're holding [live] bodies that were shocking. Moving without willingness. Their hands were moving without willingness," Zaitouneh remembered.

Convulsions, constricted pupils, blurred vision, and impaired breathing are all classic signs of nerve gas exposure.

Razan Zaitouneh stayed in touch with friends in nearby towns by phone; travel was impossible, she said, because "the regime was shelling everywhere." When she was finally able to leave and move to other towns, she began to see hundreds of people killed.

"The dead bodies -- this is the strange thing -- the dead bodies, there were hundreds. And there were two kinds." The first continued to have foam come out of their mouths. "Another kind -- blood came out from their mouths and noses."

But skepticism remains about the veracity of opposition claims.

"A major concern is the timing," former Defense Department intelligence analyst John McLeary wrote in an influential defense newsletter. A team of U.N. weapons inspectors is in Damascus with the permission of the Assad government, he noted. "The opposition has a strong interest in attracting the attention of the U.N. team, or any potential outside source of assistance, any way it can."

And while there have been dozens of videos allegedly taken from the attack and uploaded to YouTube, exactly what that footage shows is unclear. American intelligence officials and outside experts believe they show the tell-tale signs of some sort of nerve gas attack. But they can't be sure.

"There are pictures, lots of video, lots of primary information as well but we are still trying to make sense of it," said Rafal Rohozinski, the CEO of the SecDev Group, which is under contract from the State Department to provide secure communications software to Syrian activists and monitor social media there. "There are some aspects which are almost too picture-perfect and unexplained, like why so much information is getting out even though the zone itself is tightly controlled. It is really too early to make any assessments, but certainly there is more gray around this event  than most we have tracked in the past."

Yet amid the haze of confusion remains a desire by members of Congress, the White House, and the State Department to do something. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. "If this truly was a massive chemical weapons attack, it's very serious," said Murphy. "But frankly ... the question still remains: Will U.S. arms make the situation better or worse? I still argue that we can't definitively show it will make the situation better."

With additional reporting by David Kenner