The cable was produced by US officials in Turkey and signed by the US consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner. The report is based on interviews conducted with activists, civilians, doctors and aid workers on the ground.
An Obama administration official, who reviewed the secret cable, revealed that it makes a “compelling case” that Assad indeed resorted to a form of poison gas, although it is impossible to confirm “100 per cent”.
The weapon in question is Iraqi Agent 15, chemically either identical or closely related to BZ, and is controlled under schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Although Agent 15 is a hallucinogenic, semilethal weapon, it must not be underestimated. Symptoms include delirium, respiratory problems, and increased heart rate. A high exposure can lead to seizures, coma, and respiratory failure.
Doctors in Homs confirmed that some of their patients died from choking on their own vomit. According to them, their conclusion that chemical weapons were used are based on three factor: “The suddenness of the deaths of those who were directly exposed, the large number of people affected, and the fact that many victims returned with recurring symptoms more than 12 hours after they had been treated, meaning that the poison had settled either in their nervous systems or fat tissue.”
The use of Agent 15 constitutes yet another attempt by Assad to test out his boundaries, given that his regime is on the verge of collapse. We have seen a similar policy before, when Assad slowly increased his air campaign to await the West’s response. When it eventually turned out that the establishment of a no-fly zone was out of the question, the regime shifted its modus operandi accordingly. Now, it kills primarily from the air.
The incident is a strong indicator that the conflict is at high risk to descend into full chemical warfare and could have serious implications for the US’s approach on Syria, as it crosses the administration’s declared “red line” policy.
But although the use of Agent 15 is a clear and serious breach of that policy, there are no indications that the Obama administration plans to let its words follow action.
On the contrary, the White House National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor, stated today that “the reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program.”
He also vowed that “if the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons, or fails to meet its obligation to secure them, the regime will be held accountable.”
His remarks follow General Martin Dempsey’s assssement that “the effort or the act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable.”
It is not the first time that the administration is widening the definition of its “red line” concept. In the earlier stages of the conflict, the President declared that “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around” would lead to US action. He has now shifted his position to the point where the US will only get involved, if Assad uses chemical weapons on his own people.
According to the secret State Department cable, that point seems to have now been reached. It appears, however, that the Obama administration is redefining its “red line” concept yet again in order to avoid the embarrassment of being called out on the violation of its own policy.
This in turn sends signals to Iran that US red lines are not necessarily as defined as might be stated initially. Many inside and outside Iran will now be questioning Obama’s declared commitment to preventing the country from developing nuclear weapons capability. If his red lines for Syria become flexible whenever it looks as though he may be expected to order military intervention, why would they be any less so for Iran?
Washington wants to stay out of Syria at any cost but the administration’s lack of leadership and credibility is putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians at risk, and risks emboldening Assad, who may decide that America’s moving red lines allow him to act with impunity.
If Assad believes that he can get away with using semilethal chemical weapons without any serious repercussions, he may move on to using lethal weapons in the next stage of the conflict.
The Obama administration is about to give up the last buffer zone between a disastrous civil war that already claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 people in the space of 22 months and full chemical warfare that could kill the same amount of people in a much shorter period.
I would like to thank my colleague Jonathan Sacerdoti for his much appreciated advice.