White House doubts Syria chem. weapons report

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

The White House late Tuesday expressed skepticism about a report that Syria’s military used a chemical weapon against its own people in the city of Homs in December – but did not flatly deny the account.

“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,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Vietor was reacting to a report on Foreign Policy Magazine’s The Cable blog, citing a secret diplomatic cable from the U.S. consul in Istanbul, laying out conclusions from an investigation into the events in Homs on December 23.

Whether the report is accurate matters because President Barack Obama has warned Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that triggers a possible American military intervention.

“The President was very clear when he said 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,” Vietor said.

The Foreign Policy report seems to come from an official eager to see an increase in American help to Syrian rebels. The Obama Administration says it does not provide arms directly to the opposition, but media reports have said that American intelligence officials are helping the various groups to unify, steering third-party arms to those it has vetted while trying to cast out extremist elements that may have al-Qaeda sympathies.

“The report confirms the worst fears of officials who are frustrated by the current policy, which is to avoid any direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels and limit U.S. aid to sporadic deliveries of humanitarian and communications equipment,” The Cable says. But it's not clear how greater U.S. military aid to the rebels would have prevented the alleged attack or might stop the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in a possible last-gasp attempt to hold on to power.

It cites an Obama administration official who reviewed the secret message to Washington as saying "we can't definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23.”

Wire Magazine’s “Danger Room” national security blog explains what “Agent 15” is:

Agent 15 is another name for 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate or BZ, a powerful hallucinogen that the American military tested out on its own soldiers during the Cold War. Its emergence on the Syrian battlefield would be nothing short of bizarre. While Syria is well-known to have a massive supply of chemical weapons, international observers haven’t ordinarily included BZ on that list. Over the years, there have been rumors of BZ being used on a battlefield — including one that Iraqi insurgents were dosing themselves with the drug to pump up their aggressiveness. This would be the first confirmed case of BZ employed as a weapon. At the moment, however, it is not confirmed.