The Cable

Congress Pushes Back on Obama's Military Aid to Egypt

The Obama administration's plan to move forward with $650 million in military aid to Egypt hit a new snag on Tuesday as a key Democrat announced his opposition to the move in light of the mass death sentences handed out by Egyptian judges this week after what were widely derided as show trials.

During an address on the Senate floor, Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, said he would block additional aid to Cairo due to its continued human rights abuses.

"I'm not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military," said the Vermont Democrat. "I'm not prepared to do that until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law."

Leahy's address complicates the Obama administration's efforts to shore up its ties with Cairo, which deteriorated sharply after Egyptian generals ousted the country's democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsy, in July. It's not clear that Leahy can singlehandedly block the aid from growing through, but the timing of the senator's remarks put the administration in a particularly awkward position.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in Washington to discuss recent developments in the country. While complimenting the "positive step" achieved in the drafting of the Egyptian constitution, Kerry said there "have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process, the court system, that have raised serious challenges for all of us."

It was a clear reference to an Egyptian court's decision to hand down death sentences on Monday to the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 682 supporters of the banned group -- a move Leahy denounced as a "sham trial."

Leahy is part of a lonely band of senators who openly oppose resuming all U.S. aid to Cairo. Until his statement of opposition, the only other senator to speak out against the aid was Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a libertarian whose top aide told Foreign Policy last week that the U.S. "shouldn't be giving one penny of our tax dollars to Egypt right now." However, more lawmakers now appear to be following in Paul's footsteps. On Tuesday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told The New York Times that he opposes further military aid as well.

Members of Congress, in general, would have had more authority to block the military assistance if it weren't for the omnibus appropriations bill passed in January, which gave the administration leeway to provide military assistance to Egypt so long as it goes to border security and counterterrorism purposes. Of course, Leahy's position as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee gives him a high degree of sway over funding through both formal and informal channels.

In any event, the State Department is not raising a white flag yet. In a statement, an official said the administration would continue to make its case to wavering lawmakers. "We have been asked for certain clarifications by our congressional committees on how this funding will be used and we are providing those details," an official said on background. "What we are seeing now is the Congressional notification and consultation process at work."

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The Cable

Is Assad Now Using Chlorine to Gas His Own People?

The world's chemical weapons watchdog will send a fact-finding mission to Syria to examine claims by the United States and other Western powers that the Syrian government may have used deadly chlorine gas against its own people.

Tuesday's announcement by the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) followed a week of intensive diplomatic efforts by Washington to rally international support for such a mission, which is likely to renew international scrutiny of Syria's chemical weapons at a time when Damascus was receiving credit for destroying its stockpiles of the lethal toxins.

Over the past several days, the United Nations has repeatedly declared that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had eliminated most of his country's chemical weapons program, largely abiding by the terms of an agreement struck earlier this year to avert a U.S. attack. Chlorine wasn't covered by that deal, which means Assad can technically use a weapon fashioned from an old-fashioned industrial cleaner without being in violation of the agreement. And according to Syrian opposition groups, that's exactly what he's doing.

A Syrian human rights group, the Violations Documentation Center, issued a report this month alleging that the Syrian government has used chemical gases, including chlorine, at least 14 times since the beginning of the year, killing 22 people and injuring nearly 250. It cited one case in which Syrian helicopters allegedly dropped explosives containing chlorine gas on the village of Kfar Zeita on April 11 and 12.

The Obama administration finds some of those claims credible. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week that the U.S. was conducting its own investigation into allegations that the Syrian government used "a toxic industrial chemical, probably chlorine" in April in Kfar Zeita. In response, the White House has mounted an intensive, behind-the-scenes diplomatic campaign in The Hague designed to convince other Western powers to prod the OPCW to investigate whether Damascus has been using weaponized chlorine against rebels. Exposure to chlorine gas in large quantities can have a deadly effect, targeting the throat and lungs and suffocating its victims.

The American diplomatic effort appears to be bearing fruit. Ahmet Uzumcu, the Turkish director general of the OPCW, informed the agency's executive council that he will send a fact-finding mission to Syria to examine claims that the chemical agent chlorine may have been used as a weapon of war in Syria's conflict. The effort has the backing of the OPCW council, which includes the United States and Russia, and of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has pledged logistical support for the mission, according to a statement issued by the OPCW.

"The Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control," according to a statement from the agency. "The team is expected to depart for Syria soon."

Chlorine is a common industrial chemical that is best known for its use in laundry detergents and swimming pool cleaners, a standard industrial agent that is not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. But chlorine has an unsavory history, first used as a chemical warfare agent by Germany against Franco-Algerian troops in World War I. Despite that history, chlorine is no longer considered a chemical warfare agent.

The preparations come amid growing concerns in Western capitals that the Syrian government may be seeking to preserve at least a limited capacity to reconstitute a chemical weapons program when international scrutiny of its declared stockpiles subsides. The United States, Britain, and France have already begun to quietly raise concerns with the chemical weapons watchdog that Syria has not declared its entire chemical weapons program.

Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, has "categorically" denied the allegations, claiming that Western powers have trumped up charges of alleged chemical weapons use to detract attention from Syria's preparations for presidential elections.

The new mission -- if it is approved by Syria -- would conduct a preliminary assessment of allegations of chlorine use. A more formal investigation, however, would likely require approval by the OPCW's executive board, which includes representatives from 41 countries, including Syria's ally Russia, or the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow holds veto power, according to Western diplomats.

The U.S. and Russia brokered a deal last fall that bound Syria to destroy its previously clandestine chemical weapons program and join the Chemical Weapons Convention in exchange for calling off U.S. airstrikes against Damascus.

The deal -- which was later accepted by Syria and blessed by the U.N. Security Council -- required Syria to destroy or remove all of its chemical weapons from the country by April 27, a deadline which passed this weekend with a small portion of Syria's declared chemical weapons program still in Syria. The final destruction of Syria's chemical weapons programs -- some of which will be carried out at sea on a U.S. naval vessel, the M.V. Cape Ray, and at other foreign chemical disposal facilities -- is due to be completed by June 30.

Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat who heads the U.N.-OPCW joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, declared over the weekend that Syria had eliminated more than 90 percent of its declared chemical weapons.

Jaafari, the Syrian envoy, told reporters last week he expected Kaag's mission to conclude its work and leave Syria as soon as Syria completes the elimination of its declared chemical weapons program. "It will be the end of everything," he said.

But U.S., British, and French officials have voiced concern with the OPCW that Syria has not declared its entire chemical weapons program, including rockets used in a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Ghouta last summer, and that it possesses stores of chemical precursors that can be used to make new chemical weapons, according to U.N.-based diplomats. In an interview with Reuters, Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said, "Our view is that there is a continuing role for the joint mission well beyond the removal of the chemicals."

In an April 25 letter to the U.N. Security Council, Ban said Syria has "made important progress towards the elimination of its entire declared stockpile of chemical weapons material." As of last week, Syria either destroyed or exported more than 92.5 percent of its chemical weapons program, including 96.7 percent of the most dangerous chemicals and 82.6 percent of other chemical precursors, according to Ban.

Ban said that most of the remaining 7.5 percent of Syria's declared stockpile of chemical weapons materials -- including small amounts of isopropanol, a common industrial chemical that also serves as a key precursor for the nerve agent sarin -- are housed in a single facility "where the [Syrian] government had determined it would not be possible to undertake removal operations due to the prevailing security situation." But, he added, the "Syrian authorities have recommitted to the removal and destruction of this remaining stockpile as soon as the security situation permits." Ban also said that the team is preparing for the destruction of 12 chemical weapons production sites that Syria had hoped it could keep.

While Ban has previously praised Syria for cooperating with international efforts to destroy its chemical weapons, he voiced concern "about recent reports of allegations regarding the use of toxic chemicals during the course of the conflict," an apparent reference to reports of chlorine use, and urged that "all necessary steps should be taken to establish the facts surrounding these allegations."

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