The Cable

Syria's Chemical War Continued Even as the West Threatened Retaliation

When it became clear that Syrian troops had killed large numbers of civilians with nerve gas on Aug. 21, their commanders screamed at them to call off the attack, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts. Yet the chemical warfare continued in Syria for several days after the attack that nearly dragged the United States into a war there.

That's one of many surprising findings from a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons in Syria, which concludes that chemical weapons have been used at least five times in the country's ongoing conflict -- and at least twice since the Aug. 21 nerve gas strike in the Damascus suburbs that Washington claimed killed as many at 1,400 people.

But what's particularly confusing is that it was Bashar al-Assad's supporters, and not his opponents, who claimed publicly that chemical weapons were used in the towns of Jobar on Aug. 24 and Ashrafiah Sahnaya on Aug. 25.

The timing of the attacks is also odd. On the same day that Syrian soldiers may have been exposed to poisonous gas in Jobar, British Prime Minister David Cameron's office issued a release saying that he and President Barack Obama were "both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people.... [S]ignificant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community."

In other words, as the war drums for a Western strike on Syria began to beat, there were probably two more chemical attacks in the country. But who launched them?

The Assad regime's claims of additional chemical attacks by rebel forces were brushed off in the aftermath of a slaughter that produced dozens of videos of dead children, stacked like cordwood. Now it appears Syria's assertions may have been true, though evidence of chemical weapons use by opposition forces remains far from proven. And the report concedes that the U.N. investigators were not able to establish a clear chain of custody linking any possible perpetrators to the crimes.

The report asserts that "the United Nations mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers." The team also claims to have collected evidence that "chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers." In Jobar, blood samples recovered by the Syrian government, and "authenticated" by the United Nations, tested positive for signatures of sarin.

The report, however, acknowledges that its investigation was inconclusive, citing its inability in Jobar to secure "primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody." The U.N., it noted, "could not establish the link between victims, the alleged event and the alleged site." The report also asserted that the crime scene in Jobar was compromised "by visits of representatives of the Syrian Government who had reportedly moved the remnants of two explosive devices alleged to be the munitions used in the incident." The U.N. mission later examined those explosive fragments at a government storage site.

The long-anticipated U.N. investigation -- which was authored by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom -- provided no new conclusive evidence about who was responsible for the attacks. (An earlier report, however, provided strong circumstantial evidence that the Assad regime launched the Aug. 21 strike.) This new, 82-page report states simply: "The United Nations mission concludes that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic."

Yet the report could add fuel to a debate over Syria's chemical weapons that was already burning hot. Last weekend, the controversial investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote an article strongly suggesting that it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, who launched the Aug. 21 attacks. The report was roundly criticized for mischaracterizing the munitions used in the strike.

The U.N. teams' findings are unlikely to alter the course of international efforts to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. While Damascus has refused to admit it used chemical weapons, it has acknowledged that it possesses an unconventional arsenal, including nerve gas. Under a pact brokered by the United States and Russia, Syria is undertaking the destruction of that program under international supervision.

Still, the report helps flesh out the details about the introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian battlefield. The report examines seven out of 16 alleged incidents of chemical weapons use, saying there was insufficient evidence in eight of the cases to justify further investigation.

The U.N. report also examines a March 19 incident in the town of Khan Al Asal. The Syrian government claimed that rebels used nerve agent in an attack against Army troops; but Britain and France countered that the Syrian troops were exposed in a friendly fire incident involving a government rocket attack. Today's report is unlikely to settle the matter. It states that the U.N. mission "collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians. However, the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information about delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody."

At the time of the incident, Khan Al Asal was under the control of Syrian forces, but was engaged in ongoing shelling with opposition forces in areas surrounding the village. At about 7 a.m., a munition landed "near a living quarter approximately 300 meters from a military checkpoint," sending nearly 150 people, including Syrian troops, to six nearby hospitals for treatment. "The munition released gas on its impact. The air stood still and witnesses described a yellowish-green mist in the air and a pungent and strong sulfur-like smell."

Sellstrom's effort to reach definite conclusions about any of the incidents was hampered by ongoing fighting, which limited his team's access to sites where chemical weapons were used, and conflicting testimony.

In Khan Al Asal, Sellstrom said that his team, which did not visit the site, "received contradictory information as to how chemical weapons agents were delivered." Sellstrom said his team was also unable to corroborate the findings of a Russian investigation, which concluded that sarin had been detected in soil samples and metal fragments.

The report also found that chemical weapons had been used on April 29 in the towns of Saraqeb, near Idlib.

After receiving the report, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon thanked Sellstrom and his team for "their important and courageous work. They have carried out their tasks with the highest degree of professionalism, and did so in the face of many dangers."

AFP / Getty Images

The Cable

Everyone Loves Iran Sanctions… For Now

While lawmakers are still debating the merits of the interim deal with Iran, Washington seems to agree on at least one thing: sanctions work. The U.S. program to cut Iran off from the international financial system is widely viewed as successful -- the only debate in Congress is whether to ratchet up sanctions now, or later.

Though they can't agree on what to do next, politicians from both sides of the aisle espouse the view that Iran came to the negotiating table because of U.S. sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the argument Wednesday at Transformational Trends, a conference co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department.  Kerry said not only did sanctions bring the Iranians to the table, but also the Iranian people elected President Hassan Rouhani to get out from under the sanctions. 

The debate over what to do next is borne out of that perceived success - sanctions are so effective, we should add more of them, is the argument from lawmakers who want the U.S. to hold a hardline. Tomorrow, the key officials running the Iran sanctions program are set to rebut that argument in a Senate hearing. 

Treasury sanctions chief David Cohen, who will testify tomorrow with head State Department negotiator Wendy Sherman, previewed his argument today in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Cohen says sanctions brought Iran to the table and the U.S. is not relenting during the interim agreement.

"We will communicate a blunt message to every foreign official, businessperson and banker who thinks now might be a good time to test the waters: We are watching, and we are poised to act against anyone, anywhere, who violates our sanctions," Cohen said in the op-ed.

Cohen followed that threat with action Wednesday, announcing a stiff fine against a Scottish bank for alleged sanctions violations. The Treasury Department said it reached a $100 million settlement with the Royal Bank of Scotland for alleged violations of sanctions against Iran, Sudan and other countries.

"This action demonstrates our continuing efforts to aggressively enforce U.S. sanctions laws against Iran and other sanctioned parties," Office of Foreign Assets Control Director Adam Szubin said in a statement.

Though Obama administration officials promise pressure on Iran will not relent, that's no guarantee of success. And past examples demonstrate how tricky gauging success can be.  Though the Treasury Department managed to cut off North Korea from its primary bank Banco Delta Asia in 2005 applying pressure to the reclusive regime, the tactic never succeeded in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. And while the United States' decades-long trade embargo against Cuba continues, it doesn't seem to be leading to any breakthroughs (Obama-Castro handshake, aside).

The problem is that sanctions aren't an exact science. While strict sanctions seem to have helped get Iran to the table, there's no way to know for sure.  Ali Vaez, senior analyst on Iran with the International Crisis Group, says that view discounts internal factors in Iran, like economic decisions by the Iranian leadership.

"It's a reductionist view to credit sanctions and only sanctions for this outcome," said Vaez. Therefore, Vaez says, it's wrong to think "more pain results in more gain" with sanctions policy. 

And if the easing of sanctions, under the interim deal reached in Geneva, is meant to coax Iran toward a permanent agreement, it will be hard to call the sanctions a success until negotiators reach a permanent agreement to mothball Iran's nuclear program.

And as Washington continues to debate between tough and tougher sanctions, the pain that falls on the heads of ordinary Iranians doesn't really come up. In addition to making it hard to get food and medicine into Iran, sanctions lawyer Farhad Alavi, says there are other ancillary effects.

"It is damn near impossible for Iranians to open foreign bank accounts now," said Alavi, a partner at Akrivis Law Group PLLC.  Alavi, who helps companies navigate the sanctions laws, says banks in the U.S. are sophisticated enough to know what's legal and what's not, but many banks outside the U.S. don't want to deal with Iranians, even if they're not designated by Treasury, because the risk of running afoul of U.S. law is too high.

"The law might say one thing, but it has a cascading effect.  It impacts things that aren't even mentioned in the law," Alavi said. The success of sanctions has effectively made Iran toxic in the international business community, he said. And the full effect of that, good or bad, is yet to be seen.

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