The Cable

U.N. Chief Says He Has 'Overwhelming' Evidence of Chemical Attacks in Syria

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that U.N. weapons inspectors have obtained "overwhelming" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The inspection team, according to a U.N.-based diplomatic source, has uncovered traces of the nerve agent sarin, a key agent in the chemical weapons arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

"I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time," Ban said. Ban -- who made the remarks in a speech before the Women's International Forum -- thought he was speaking in a closed-door meeting. But the session was being broadcast live on an internal U.N. television feed.

It's the first time the United Nations has officially declared that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. And the acknowledgment comes two days before the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is scheduled on Sunday to present the U.N. chief with a report on his team's findings in Syria. Ban will present a briefing on the team's finding to the U.N. Security Council on Monday morning at 11 a.m.

As Foreign Policy reported in this week, the report is expected to point to the Assad regime as the culprits behind the Aug. 21 attack.

Ban did not say who was responsible for using chemical weapons or what nerve agent was used. But he did accuse Assad of having responsibility for crimes against humanity during Syria's 2½-year-long civil war, which has killed more than 100,00 people and introduced chemical warfare into battle for the first time in decades.

"He has committed many crimes against humanity," Ban said. "Therefore I'm sure that there will be surely the process of accountability when everything is over, but at this time first and foremost we have to help the fighting stop and dialogue, talking, begin."

Another diplomatic source, who is familiar with the team's findings, said that the inspectors have collected multiple samples of environmental and biomedical samples indicating that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack. American authorities claim more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, were killed in those strikes. While the scale of the killing is in dispute, with some estimates in the lower hundreds, there is broad agreement among governments that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the deliberations, said that the team has compiled significant circumstantial evidence indicating Syrian government complicity in the attacks. "The report will clearly say that it is sarin," the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice, the diplomat said. "It clearly hints that the regime is the perpetrator."

The diplomat said that the finding would not be sufficient to end the debate in the Security Council on who used chemical weapons. Monday's Security Council meeting, the diplomat added, will take place "behind closed doors" so there will "be big room for spinning."

Western intelligence agencies hold that Syria maintains large stocks of sarin, VX, and mustard gas. But the Syrian government and its chief political patron, Russia, have denied that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. They claim that Syrian rebels have introduced nerve agents into the country's civil war in order to induce the United States and other outside powers to intervene in the conflict.

Today's revelations come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are trying to hammer out an agreement to place Syria's chemical weapons program under international control and ultimately see them destroyed. Those talks have been complicated by the Syrian president's demand, issued Thursday, that the United States end threats against Syria before Syria will agree to relinquish control of its chemical weapons. Syria will only comply with the arms control pact now under negotiation, Assad said, when "we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also cease arms deliveries to terrorists."

Kerry and Lavrov, however, sought to highlight progress in their chemical weapons talks, which are ongoing, announcing this morning that the two men would meet again in New York to discuss the prospects of reviving their efforts to organize a major Syrian peace summit in Geneva.

Ban, meanwhile, voiced growing frustration at the big powers' inability to reach agreement on a plan to end the killing in Syria. "It's an incredible situation that the Security Council has not been able to adopt any single resolution, even humanitarian, even humanitarian issues, not to mention political and security issues," he said. "They are divided. I am very troubled by this. This is a failure by the United Nations."

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Exclusive: John McCain Will Attack Vladimir Putin in the Pages of Pravda

In a first-of-its kind arrangement, the editors of Russian news site Pravda have tentatively agreed to publish a column by Sen. John McCain that will attack the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The agreement comes one day after Putin criticized the United States in a widely-read column in The New York Times.

"If John McCain wants to write something for us, he is welcome," Dmitry Sudakov, the English editor of Pravda tells The Cable. "Mr. McCain has been an active anti-Russian politician for many years already. We have been critical of his stance on Russia and international politics in our materials, but we would be only pleased to publish a story penned by such a prominent politician as John McCain."

When The Cable reached the senator's office with the offer, McCain's communications director Brian Rogers responded within minutes. "On the record: Senator McCain would be glad to write something for Pravda, so we'll be reaching out to Dmitry with a submission."

The beginning of this surprising arrangement all started last night when your trusty Cable guy watched an interview between McCain and CNN's Jake Tapper about Putin's latest op-ed. In a nod to Russia's restrictive press policies (Russia is ranked 148th out of 179 in the world for respecting press freedoms by Reporters Without Borders), McCain joked "I would love to have a commentary in Pravda." 

After The Cable sent this transcript to Pravda, Sudakov bristled at the idea that his news site would be prevented from publishing a column by McCain.

"I am convinced that we would not agree on many things that he would have to say in his column, but an article like that would obviously be published in English and then translated into Russian so that all our Russian readers could read what Mr. McCain has to say," he said. "In addition... we already have a U.S. politician who acts as a regular contributor to Pravda.Ru - Paul Craig Roberts, a former Senator, a man who used to be in the team of Ronald Reagan. So I believe that Mr. McCain is not aware of the real state of affairs in my country when he expresses his judgements of freedom of speech." 

Rogers chuckled at the suggestion that Paul Craig Roberts is a former senator (he's actually a former assistant secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy during the Reagan administration) and pointed to some of his anti-establishment views posted on his personal site. "He was never a senator," said Rogers. "If you look on his website, it's all pro-Putin stuff and how the United States is a criminal regime."

When asked what the senator might write about, Rogers said the senator would have no trouble coming up with something for next week. "This is obviously a target-rich environment," he said. "There are a lot of issues that I'm sure Sen. McCain would want to address: Democracy and human rights in Russia and certainly the Putin regime's aiding and abetting of the Syrian regime, which has killed 100,000 of its own people."

It's worth noting that this is not your grandfather's Pravda. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Pravda was temporarily shut down and a number of its journalists migrated to Pravda.ru, which is distinctly anti-Western but no longer an official organ for the Communist Party. 

Regardless, The Cable welcomes this next chapter in U.S-Russian relations and is happy to have played a small part in bringing it about. (And look: McCain didn't even need to hire a fancy public relations firm.)

Update:  The McCain camp e-mails Pravda and promises a submission by Wednesday at the latest. The story was also updated to reflect that Pravda.ru does not have a print edition: 

Dmitry: Senator McCain appreciates your offer to publish a piece by him in Pravda. We will send you the op-ed early next week, by Wednesday at the latest. Please let us know if that works. We will have Senator McCain's op-ed translated into Russian so that we can be certain of the accuracy translation, and we will send you a final version in both English and Russian.

Again, we greatly appreciate Pravda's offer to run a piece by Senator McCain. From the reaction I have seen so far, I am sure that this piece will receive great attention.

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Best regards,

Brian Rogers

Communications Director

Office of Senator John McCain