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.
The crisis in Syria is on-going and so is the debate about the West’s options to help end the bloodshed. Those in favour of a more pro-active policy are regularly confronted with a variety of arguments against intervention. Some of them are perfectly legitimate and rightly point at the potential risks of Western involvement. The validity of others, however, has to be questioned. In the following, four common myths will be addressed.
1) “Syria is primarily a humanitarian crisis”
The humanitarian crisis in Syria is heart-breaking. According to UN figures, 60,000 people have died since March 2011 and the actual number is likely to be much higher. Thousands are fleeing the violence across the border every day – 84,000 in December 2012 alone – bringing the total number of those displaced to around half a million.
However, as much as Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe, it is also a geo-political, strategic crisis.
Syria is not an isolated case like, for instance, Libya. It is central to holding together the Middle East, as it touches upon various, complex interests. Due to the sectarian nature of the conflict, the spill-over effects into other countries are severe.
Turkey is not only subject to repeated border violations but watches the mobilisation of Kurdish forces in northeast Syria with sheer horror. A sharp increase of terrorist attacks can be witness in Iraq with al-Qaeda exploiting the conflict to regain momentum. Baghdad, like Turkey, is equally concerned about the Kurdish factor. So far, the number of Kurds fleeing into Iraq has been relatively small but if they were to unite, they could shift the balance of power in the country and put pressure on the Turkish government.
Meanwhile, Iran is actively supporting the Assad regime and its proxy militia, Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah, is smuggling fighters and weapons into Syria. Syria’s Sunni population, in particular the Islamist fractions among the opposition, are propped up by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
As such, the brutal conflict is not only pushing Syria into the humanitarian abyss but is destabilising various other countries to a dangerous degree. It is a recipe for a long-term sectarian strife, destruction, and death across the entire region that will make post-war Iraq look simple.
2) “Syria is lost to Islamic extremists”
The Islamist fractions in Syria are powerful and their influence is steadily growing. Among the 13 Islamic extremist groups are al-Qaeda jihadists, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Tawheed Brigade, as well as Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers. In particular, the northern Syrian town of Aleppo has turned into one of their strongholds and in November 2012, they declared it an independent Islamic state.
The Islamists, however, were not the ones who triggered the revolution, though they profited immensely from it. How did they manage to hijack the cause?
On the one hand, the Islamic rebels are supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but even more importantly the moderates have been considerably weakened by the lack of outside support. As one Syrian man stated, he can understand why people turn to the extremists and shout “Allahu akbar”. “Who else has helped us?” he asks. “No one.”
While the post-Assad era is likely to be violent and chaotic, it is not too late to fix some of the damage caused.
Western help can counteract the rise of extremist ideologies. The US-led intervention in Kosovo has pushed back the spread of such ideologies, which are likely to emerge in situations of war and despair, and effectively manifested pro-Western attitudes among the predominantly Muslim population.
Assad has not fallen yet and there is still opportunity to influence, at least to a certain extent, the direction the country will take. When the time for making decisions comes, there is a strong argument for the West’s need to be in that room, rather than outside.
3) “Assad is the guardian of minorities”
A common argument in favour of Assad’s reign is that Syria’s religious minorities have so far enjoyed relative freedom and protection in the country.
It is true that most Christians and Alawites stick with Assad, an autocratic, but secular leader as they fear revenge attacks and religious oppression. They are not giving the Syrian opposition the benefit of the doubt, after what happened in Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon.
A Christian man from Syria expressed the dilemma vividly: “If the regime goes, you can forget about Christians in Syria. […] Look what happened to the Christians of Iraq. They had to flee everywhere, while most of the churches were attacked and bombed.”
In contrast, another ethnic minority has long suffered oppression under Assad and his predecessors. The Kurds are the second largest minority in Syria and were among the first to rise up against Assad in 2004. Since then, they have engaged in anti-Assad protests and many have joined the Free Syrian Army. Nevertheless, there is also doubt among the Kurdish people about their perspectives under a new regime: “Maybe things will be worse for us.”
However, Assad is not the only source of stability and security available to Syria’s Kurds, Christians and Alawites, Druze and Ismaelites. The Syrian Support Group has developed a detailed transitional-justice plan with considerable security-guarantees to stem the danger of post-Assad sectarian violence and lawlessness in rural regions.
As a part of the plan, the Syrian opposition wants to employ carrots and sticks, like partial or full amnesty, to motivate former Assad officials to defect and initiate the process of his fall. Moreover, safe-passage will be guaranteed to Alawites who are not in Assad’s inner circle. In addition, there will also be a fund to compensate war victims and their families.
The plan was developed by a London-based legal firm called McCue & Partners, which is advising the Syrian Support Group. Hopes are that the plan will gain international support at the next Friends of Syria meeting in Italy. Washington Post journalist David Ignatius even went so far as to call the plan “the best idea advanced so far by the Syrian rebels”.
4) “There are no effective military strategies available”
“There is nothing we can do” has become the favourite mantra of the opponents of potential military intervention in Syria. The truth is that we have various options at our disposal, short of a full-scale invasion.
Firstly, we should consider arming the moderate fractions among the opposition. While such undertaking is not without risk, it is indefensible that right now everyone is receiving support but the people that are Syria’s only hope for a brighter future.
Secondly, the Patriots stationed along the Turkish-Syrian border provide us with a unique opportunity to establish a partial No-Fly-Zone. Given that Assad is increasingly killing from the air, the casualty number could be significantly reduced. Once such a zone is created and upheld, humanitarian corridors to address the civilian suffering could be established.
Contrary to what opponents of military intervention claim, Assad’s army is not nearly as strong as perceived and his capabilities greatly exaggerated. Syria’s military forces are better equipped than those of Libya under Gaddafi but the average standard of military efficiency in the Middle East, is relatively low, especially in countries where most weaponry consists of outdated Soviet-era purchases. The number of ground troops are not higher than 100,000, the navy fleet is limited in scope, the air force lacks regular maintenance and Assad has failed to get hold of 60% of his ill-trained reserves.
Thirdly, Syria is not Iraq. Not even the strongest supporters of military intervention, like Republican Senator John McCain, suggest putting boots on the ground. Furthermore, in the case of Iraq a relatively small group of defected intellectuals called for military intervention but in Syria, the animosity against the West is growing precisely because of a lack of action.
Syria, like Libya, has never been a traditional ally of us. But as a Gallup poll in the post-Gaddafi era has shown, Libyans now like Americans more than Canada and several European countries. Maybe it is time to see the revolution in Syria not only as a threat, which it clearly is, but also as an opportunity. But to turn the uprising into something more positive, it is not enough to remain on the side-line and watch as the chaos unfolds.
The United Nations announced today that the total death toll in Syria has passed 60,000. In summer of 2011, roughly 1,000 people lost their lives per month. The figure has now risen to 5,000. It is said to be a conservative estimate with the actual numbers likely to be far higher.
Compared to other conflicts, the number of Syrian casualties now equals the total killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948 or, put differently, Assad butchered half the number of people over 22 months that Milosevic killed between 1992-1995 in the Balkans.
Yet there are no signs of any potential intervention by the international community, as long as Assad is not resorting to chemical and biological weapons — also known as the ‘red line’ policy of the Obama administration.
But I am asking myself: shouldn’t tens of thousands of men, women and children not be a ‘red line’ in themselves? What is the acceptable human threshold of pain, given that we have said so many times: ‘never again!’
Some commentators suggest that we cannot do anything or that it is already too late to intervene effectively.
It is too late in the sense that the worst case scenario has already unfolded. What we see is that everything the Obama administration said would happen in the case of intervention, is actually taking place in the absence of leadership.
Islamists have hijacked the revolution and the opposition increasingly resorts to the tactics of terrorists.
Yet just because the situation on the ground is immensely bleak, and the post-Assad era likely to be chaotic, does not mean there is nothing we can do at all.
Damage control is still an option.
The Patriots along the Turkish/Syrian border could be utilised to establish a partial no-fly-zone without entering Syrian airspace. This is significant, as the Assad regime‘s preferred modus operandi is to kill from the air.
It would also allow us to establish humanitarian corridors to provide shelter. Right now, refugees are pouring into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, at a rate of up to several thousand a day, and they have reached a breaking point of capacity.
The violence in Syria has also spilled into neighbouring countries. For instance, it manifests itself in the noteworthy increase of terrorist attacks in Iraq over the last few months. The crisis in Syria allowed Al Qaida to slip back into the country and with US troops gone, Iraq once more is at risk of descending into chaos.
It would also make sense to consider arming parts of the opposition. Such undertaking would not be without risk but what is happening right now is that while we refuse to engage with the secularists, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the Islamist rebels with our weapons. The extremists grow stronger by the day. The people we should support, however, are side-lined.
The Syrian problem is not going away and the longer we wait, the uglier it will become. That is a lesson history has taught us many times.
We still have a choice. We always have one, even if it is a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Right now, Washington appears to be the major obstacle to intervention. No Western country has taken the full initiative but France, for instance, suggested the establishment of a no-fly-zone months ago.
With his inaction, Obama is betraying the core principles of American benevolence and is belittling his country’s power and influence in the world. Syria is one of his greatest failures and will haunt him throughout his second term.
As one Syrian woman put it: ‘We will not forget that you forgot about us.’
Barack Obama – For being the worst President of my lifetime (no, Jimmy Carter was before me)
Kim Kardashian - Baharain’s number one propagandist (sorry Ed Husain!)
Piers Morgan – The special relationship might be under strain but we can still agree on something: no one likes Piers Morgan
Haaretz – For running a piece by 9/11 truther John V. Whitbeck who labelled Zionism a “racial-supremicist, settler-colonial experiment”
PressTV – For claiming Sandy Hook massacre was a Zionist plot
Stop the War UK - For exhausting the moral bankruptcy quotient of the entire year
George Galloway – The champion of dictator apologism
Julian Assange – For supporting freedom of speech only when it fits his agenda
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer – ‘The Jewish Lobby’. Speaks for itself.
BDS movement – The psycho clowns behind the Israel boycott