The Cable

Exclusive: U.N. Report Will Point to Assad Regime in Massive Chemical Attack

U.N. inspectors have collected a "wealth" of evidence on the use of nerve agents that points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people, according to a senior Western official.

The inspection team, which is expected on Monday to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with a highly anticipated report on a suspected Aug. 21 nerve agent attack in the suburbs of Damascus, will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case -- based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples -- that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.

"I know they have gotten very rich samples -- biomedical and environmental -- and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," said the Western official. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got." The official, who declined to speak on the record because of the secrecy surrounding the U.N. investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the inspector team, but said, "You can conclude from the type of evidence the [identity of the] author."

The U.N. team, which is led by the Swedish scientist Ake Sellström, traveled to Damascus last month to begin an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons. During that trip, according to the United States and other Western powers, Syrian forces launched a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the al Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

A montage of video clips posted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on her Twitter page depicted horrific scenes of purported victims writhing in agony, and gasping for breath. Rows of dead children, their faces blue from apparent suffocation, were lined up in morbid rows, white sheets covering their tiny bodies.

Syria and Russia have denied that the government in Damascus carried out the attack, saying it was the work of Syrian rebels seeking to persuade the West to intervene militarily on their behalf. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Assad denied his government used chemical weapons -- and compared the U.S. case against Syria to former Secretary of State Colin Powell's flawed presentation against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In Syria, Assad said, "the Russians have completely opposite evidence: that missiles [were] thrown from areas that the rebels controlled."

Syria and Russia, meanwhile, have highlighted several other alleged chemical weapons attacks that wound up hitting Syrian forces. The Syrian government initially invited U.N. inspectors to Syria to investigate an alleged March 19 sarin attack in the town of Khan al Assal, near Aleppo. While the inspectors were in Damascus, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al Jaafari, requested that investigators look at three other cases of alleged chemical weapons use in late August against Syrian forces. On their final day in Damascus, the U.N. inspection team visited a military hospital in Damascus to examine alleged chemical weapons victims.

Diplomats say that Sellström's inspection team is only planning to report next week on the al Ghouta attacks. The team plans to return to Damascus at a later date to complete its investigations into the other incidents, including the March incident at Khan al Assal.

Under the terms of its mandate, however, the U.N. inspectors are only authorized to conclude whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, not assign responsibility for their use.

While Western diplomats say they are confident that U.N. report would strengthen the case against the Syrian government, they said they expected the case would not fundamentally alter the course of diplomatic efforts to contain the chemical weapons threat in Syria. "It's not a game changer," said one diplomat.

On Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, admitted his country operated a clandestine chemical weapons program, and vowed to open them up to international scrutiny as part of a Russian-brokered deal to place Syria's chemical agents under international control. "We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations," Moallem said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, headed to Geneva to see if they could reach agreement on a plan to control and ultimately destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Secretary-General Ban, for his part, appeared to be moving beyond the Sellström investigation. "I have not yet received the report from Dr. Sellström, nor do I know what it will contain," Ban told reporters Monday. But "I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch


The Cable

Key Senator Blasts White House For Mangling Syria Message

One of the Senate's most powerful Democrats has some advice for top Obama administration officials: take your collective feet out of your collective mouths when you're talking about Syria.

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken undercut the Obama administration's negotiating position with Damascus and made it even harder for the White House to sell a war-weary American public on potential military strikes against Syria.

"There are a number of things that have been said that I think are not helpful at all, including some by Kerry," Levin told reporters today.

It's rare for White House allies to name names when critiquing the administration, and Levin's remarks appeared to reflect genuine frustration that the White House hadn't laid out a clearer and more consistent case for its Syria policy.  He was careful to praise Obama's personal handling of the Syria crisis, but Levin made clear that he felt the president hadn't always been well-served by his aides. 

Levin declined to specify which of Kerry's recent statements he found unhelpful, but later said he had a hard time figuring out how to square the secretary of state's assertion that a potential American assault on Syria would be "unbelievably small" with the administration's frequent promise that the strikes would be strong enough to significantly reduce Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles. Kerry's comment, Levin said, only made sense if the former senator was talking about the duration of the strikes rather than their severity. That interpretation would seem to be at odds with the plain meaning of Kerry's words.

"I admire anyone who can reconcile them," Levin said, laughing.

The confusion over the administration Syria policy began to ramp up last week, when Kerry refused to rule out sending U.S. ground troops into Syria to prevent chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands, a comment that contradicted the White House's assurances that there would be no American "boots on the ground" in Syria.  Kerry spent the rest of the hearing reassuring senators that no combat forces would be dispatched there.

Kerry drew unwanted attention again on Monday with an off-handed comment that Assad could avoid a military strike if he gave up control of his chemical weapons.  State Department officials initially said he had simply been making a rhetorical argument, but the comment prompted Russian officials to call for putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control until they could be destroyed.  Damascus immediately said it could accept the deal, which is now at the center of fevered talks between top U.S. and Russian officials about its details and feasibility. 

Kerry himself has been a victim of the muddled White House messaging as much as a perpetrator, however. On Tuesday morning, he told a House panel that the administration didn't want Congress to delay a vote on legislation authorizing the use of force against Syria. Less than 12 hours later, Obama told the nation that he was doing just that, flatly contradicting his own secretary of state.

Republican Representative Peter King of Michigan said the administration had sold its Syria policy "horribly" and badly botched its overall messaging and lobbying efforts.

"The mixed messages of drawing a line in the sand and when it became time to pull the trigger to walk it back and then going to Sweden and saying it's not his red line and having Kerry say the strike would be 'unbelievably small,' was a disaster," he said.

King said the White House seemed to be aware of those shortcomings.  During a recent closed-door meeting, King recalled, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough "acknowledged that the message didn't work."

Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment on King's recollection of the meeting.  She said the current diplomatic maneuvering only came about because of the administration's threat to use force against Assad.

"Syria and Russia heard the message loud and clear that the president is serious about the prospect of taking military action to hold the regime responsible," she said.

If Levin is right, however, Damascus and Moscow may have been hearing different messages altogether.

Take the words of Tony Blinken, long one of Vice President Joe Biden's closest aides.   Blinken told NPR last week that Obama had no "intention" of striking Syria without Congressional approval even though the president believed he could do so unilaterally. The comment was widely interpreted as a sign that the administration wasn't fully committed to using force against Assad if Congress said no. Obama tried to walk back Blinken's comment a few hours later, but Levin suggested that the move was too late to prevent observers from concluding that Obama was waffling on a potential Syria strike and wasn't serious about his threats of carrying one out.

"I don't that was particularly helpful," Levin said, echoing his critique of Kerry - and really, of the entire administration.