After a report last week presented some startling evidence that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, a follow up this week only bolsters the case. The news came from Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin who'd managed to nab some snippets from a cable signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, suggesting that the Assad regime had already crossed Obama's "red line," an offense offensive enough to spur the U.S. into military intervention. As such an Earth-shattering report tends to be, however, the evidence stopped short of being conclusive, though a State Department official couldn't "definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 [a chemical weapon] was used in Homs on Dec. 23."
Then, on Tuesday evening, Rogan got ahold of the entire memo, and something was illuminated. The full secret cable reads:
On December 23, [Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO)] implementing partner ARK reported through their media project BASMA on a possible chemical weapons attack in Homs, Syria. This is the first time fighters from Homs, who are fighting to break a three month long siege of the city, had come across such a possible attack. The suspected attack was originally reported by doctors receiving patients exhibiting symptoms of chemical exposure.
CSO officers spoke with three contacts, including a former Chief of Staff of the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) chemical weapons arsenal, and confirmed the events and the symptoms and the number of casualties. CSO is not able to definitely say whether chemical weapons were in fact used in the December 23 attack.
So, while the skepticism endures, the original claim that a chemical attack did indeed occur seems bolstered by additional details about what was happening. Furthermore, the consulate's own contacts said that the Syrian victims' symptoms were "consistent with poisonous gas inhalation," including temporary blindness, numb joints, difficulty breathing and temporary paralysis. The cable also backs up reports from the rebels themselves who not only claimed to have suffered a chemical weapons attack but caught the victims' symptoms on camera.
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This is all very disheartening. It's disheartening on a very basic level to consider that the Assad regime would want to use chemical weapons on their own people, and they've almost definitely been preparing for such drastic measures. It's also disheartening to imagine that the U.S. government knew about an attack and -- despite Obama's promise to intervene if chemical weapons were used -- distanced themselves from the report. "At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland last week. As CNN reported around the same time, a State Department investigation showed that an unspecified "riot control agent" was used, not chemical weapons.
Oh gosh, this is getting really confusing at this point. What's the difference between a "riot control agent" that causes people to become blind and paralyzed and a "chemical weapon?" It seems like it's the difference between the Obama administration balking at damning reports to see how things pan out and keeping its promise to intervene in Syria.
That's all fine and good, but can we maybe set a deadline for making a real decision about what to do in the region, say, before the death toll tops 70,000 people? A deadline that, quite unfortunately, feels like it's going to arrive next week.