The Cable

Russians Channel Sy Hersh to Attack U.S. Chemical Weapons Claim

Russia's U.N. envoy today accused Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, of intentionally misleading the public about Syria's chemical weapons -- and used a much-disputed article by controversial journalist Sy Hersh to press his claims.

The allegation was contained in a lengthy statement that Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, today presented behind closed doors to the U.N. Security Council and repeated following the session to reporters. Churkin's government has longed maintained that the Syrian opposition, and not the government, used chemical weapons in Syria. Churkin cited as evidence of American dissembling an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh's claim in the London Review of Books that U.S. intelligence officials had previously briefed top American officials on the Syrian opposition mastery of Sarin production. (That report has faced criticism, including in Foreign Policy, on the ground that it mischaracterized basic facts about Syrian munitions.)

"The chemical attack on August 21 was carried out by the opposition," Churkin told reporters. "Still, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations stated on September 16 and I quote: ‘it's very important to note that we have no evidence that the opposition possesses Sarin.' The statement was to say the least an attempt to mislead the public opinion."

But Russia has continued to challenge that account, suggesting that Syrian rebels may have carried out a chemical weapons attack designed to maximize casualties while making it look like the government was the culprit. "Who is responsible for CW use?" Churkin asked. There are "two possible versions. If we are to assume they were used by the government, there are many contradictions."

Speaking behind closed doors, Power stood behind previous U.S. assertions that the Syrian government was behind the deadliest nerve agent attack in a quarter of a century, having fired sarin-laced shells at civilians in the Damascus suburb of Al Ghouta on August 21, killing as many as 1,400 people. She also took a poke at the Russian diplomats' account, suggesting that "a Christmas vacation might do the Russian ambassador good," according to the notes of a diplomat inside the room. (Power's blast sounded a lot like a line her predecessor, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, used in a Christmas season spat over Syria two years ago with Churkin. "Happy Holidays to my good friend Amb Churkin, who's clearly had a long month as Sec Council president," Rice wrote in a Tweet after the briefing. "Hope he gets some well- deserved rest.")

"I can't allow what has been said to remain [unchallenged]," Power said. The "Russian regime has a remarkable trust in a government that sends rockets at- and bombs its own population," she added. "It's a regime that holds its population trapped. It is a regime that denied having chemical weapons and turns out to have huge stockpiles."

The heated exchange played out at a meeting where the U.N. chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, presented the 15-nation council with a final report on the use of chemical weapons. Sellstrom concluded that chemical weapons had been used in at least five incidents. But he told reporters last week that he did not believe that he had amassed sufficient evidence to prove before a court of law that either party in the conflict had used chemical weapons.

Power said that a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons use in Al Ghouta -- while withholding blame, provided a trove of evidence -- including findings that the trajectory of the rockets used in the strike suggested they came from a government camp. And that, in her estimation, "makes use of chemical weapons by the opposition in al Ghouta not possible."

Power also cast blame on President Bashar al-Assad's government for another chemical weapons attack on March 19 in the town of Khan Al Assal where the underlying evidence of government responsibility is much thinner.

Syria and Russia both contend that opposition forces carried out a chemical strike against Syrian military forces in the town of Khan Al Assal. A U.N. investigation confirmed that nerve agent had poisoned Syrian troops in at least three incidents, including Khan Al Assal.

Power insisted that there is no evidence of opposition use in Khan Al Assal or any other place.

"I repeat that the U.S. assessed that the opposition has not used chemical weapons," she said. "The Khan al Assal case might be a case of friendly fire: Syrian planes thought they were bombing opposition positions while it was a government held line."

"If we did find out that the opposition used chemical weapons, we would denounce just as vocally," she added.

Britain's U.N. envoy also challenged Moscow's case, saying it was aimed at sowing confusion rather than identifying those responsible for chemical warfare. "Russia tries to do the "giant squid" technique; put as much ink as possible into the war to make it muddy," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told the Security Council, according to a diplomat who witnessed the exchange.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

U.S. Weighing Closer Ties With Hardline Islamists in Syria

As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria's civil war. The development has alarmed U.S. observers concerned that the radical Salafists do not share U.S. values and has dismayed supporters of the Free Syrian Army who believe the moderates were set up to fail.

On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group's seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week containing U.S.-supplied small arms and food. "We wouldn't rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday. "We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they're not designated terrorists ...  We're always open to meeting with a wide range of opposition groups. Obviously, it may make sense to do so at some point soon, and if we have something to announce, we will."

How soon the U.S. might engage with the powerful rebel faction, if it chooses to,  is uncertain. On Saturday, Reuters reported that Syrian rebel commanders in the Islamic Front were due to meet U.S. officials in Turkey in the coming days to discuss U.S. support for the group. A Syrian opposition source speaking with The Cable said that efforts were in place to unite the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front under the same coalition. "There are negotiations planned for very soon between the [Free Syrian Army's] SMC and the Islamic Front to determine what the relationship will be," said the source. America's role in coordinating the talks remains unclear.

Though the Islamic Front is not a U.S.-designated terrorist group, many of its members hold intensely anti-American beliefs and have no intention of establishing a secular democracy in Syria. U.S. interest in the group reflects the bedraggled state of the Supreme Military Council and the desire to keep military pressure on President Bashar al-Assad ahead of next month's planned peace conference in Geneva. "The SMC is being reduced to an exile group and the jihadists are taking over," said a senior congressional aide.

The creation of the Islamic Front was announced on Nov. 22 with the purpose of uniting the strength of prominent Islamist militias across the country. Seven Islamist groups, with a total estimated strength of 45,000 to 60,000 fighters, signed on to the merger.

Soon after its creation, the Islamic Front signed a charter that made it clear the group aimed to create a Sunni theocracy, not a Western-style democracy. The document rejected the prospect of any sort of representative government, arguing that in Islam, only "God is the sovereign." It explicitly rejects secularism as "contradictory to Islam," and argues that Syria's ethnic and religious minorities can be protected on the basis of Islamic law. 

Some of the comments from the Islamic Front's top leaders support the contention that the group's ideology comes dangerously close to that of al Qaeda though the front is not aligned with the terrorist network. Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front's military chief, has demonized Syria's Alawite minority and called for them to be cleansed from Damascus. As he put it in a recent video: "The jihadists will wash the filth of the rafida [a slur used to describe Shia] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it."

Though the coalition's beliefs are troubling, their military strength can't be denied. By some estimates, it's the single largest rebel command. With an inventory of heavy weaponry, tanks and artillery, experts say it's both disciplined and generously funded by Gulf sources.

Washington isn't simply looking for a place for the front. The U.S. also wants the Salafists to return the goods it took from the SMC's warehouses in Bab al Hawa in northern Syria. In an unexpected takeover, the SMC lost its headquarters to the front last week while its top commander, Gen. Salim Idriss, was out of the country . "Obviously if there would be a meeting with the Islamic Front, it would be in the context, certainly, of the taking over of the SMC headquarters," Harf said.

Any decision to engage or provide support to the Islamic Front risks angering non-interventionists in Congress. Senators such as Kentucky Republican Rand Paul have repeatedly warned the Obama administration against forging such alliances. "You will be funding allies of al Qaeda."

At the same time, some interventionists in the U.S have given up hope that the U.S. can pick the right winner in Syria. "The Islamic Front entrenching power is the culmination of what we worried about," said one hawkish Congressional aide. "By slow-rolling support to the SMC, only a fool would think they could survive on their own."

Others fear that without U.S. coordination with the Islamic Front, the stalemate in Syria will persist and Assad will continue to exploit divisions between the rebels.

David Kenner contributed to this report.