Why Doubts Are Growing About An Alleged Syrian Chemical Attack

If recent media reports have left an impression that Syrian President Bashar Assad might already have used chemical weapons against his own people, think again, says arms expert Jeffrey Lewis.

The scholar on weapons of mass destruction is assailing the credibility of Syrian opposition allegations that the chemical “Agent 15” was dispensed in the restive northern city of Homs on Dec. 23.

“No one has bothered to mention that Agent 15 doesn't exist,” Lewis said in a Foreign Policy blog post last Friday.

Beyond a passing reference to the substance in a document discovered in pre-war Iraq, neither Baghdad nor Damascus appears to have ever produced or weaponized this type of chemical agent, he said. Yet the name “Agent 15” has developed a life of its own on the Web, which might help explain the genesis of claims relating to Syria, according to the WMD expert.

An online reporter for Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin, earlier this month wrote that a U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, had investigated and found credible assertions that Syrian forces had used Agent 15, an incapacitating material that NATO dubs “BZ.” A story about the consulate’s cable to State Department headquarters also appeared in the New York Times.

Rogin reported that he had also personally interviewed by phone two physicians in Homs who said they had treated victims of the alleged gas attack. Both Syrians ruled out the possibility that the chemical was tear gas -- saying symptoms were too severe -- and reported five deaths and roughly 100 injuries.

The White House immediately voiced skepticism about the charge of chemical use, saying the reporting had “not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program.”

What is believed true about the Syrian arsenal is that it does not appear to include BZ, even if the regime stockpiles a far more lethal blister agent -- namely mustard gas -- and deadly nerve agents, including sarin and possibly VX, according to officials and experts interviewed by Global Security Newswire.

“There is no evidence that Syria has a BZ program,” said Lewis, who runs the Arms Control Wonk website and directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ East Asia Nonproliferation Program.

Even if Damascus has secretly produced the chemical, it remains less than clear that it was used, he said. Videos were posted online showing individuals apparently experiencing serious breathing problems, but seem short of corroborating anecdotal reports by Syrian doctors and regime opponents about what caused the symptoms.

What’s more, the Istanbul consulate cable was based on accounts by a contractor, Access Research Knowledge or “ARK,” which in turn used a Syrian group known as Basma to interview “three contacts” about the alleged attack.

Foreign Policy has previously described Access Research Knowledge as a support arm of the Syrian opposition, and the Istanbul cable characterizes Basma as an ARK “media project.”

“These appear to be U.S.- and U.K.-funded groups that produce anti-regime propaganda,” Lewis said in his Friday post. “Are we really surprised that they are alleging chemical weapons use?”

Rogin, the author of the original news report, declined a request for comment for this article.

If Syria were found to have used chemical weapons, that might trigger the so-called “red line” for more assertive military intervention by the Obama administration in the long-running civil war.

BZ is listed as a toxic substance under the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is described as a hallucinogenic that could induce symptoms including dilated pupils, dizziness and loss of coordination.

As such, the international agreement categorizes BZ as a second-tier incapacitating agent. Some second-tier chemicals are potentially life-threatening to the most vulnerable populations, such as infants, the elderly or those who are already ill.

Syria is not a member nation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which similarly bans the use of chemical weapons in conflict.

In fact, a nation could be held responsible for a chemical attack even without having signed onto these international treaties, according to Terence Taylor, president of the International Council for the Life Sciences.

“Most international legal experts consider the ban on the use of lethal and incapacitating chemical agents in armed conflict to be part of international customary law,” he said this week.

Could Syria be using this less-virulent chemical agent against civilians or opposition fighters as a means of testing President Obama’s threat to intervene?

Syrian leaders presumably are aware of an exception in the weapons convention that allows use of incapacitating agents “for purposes of domestic law enforcement and riot control,” Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center, told GSN on Monday. “If the Syrian government is testing the waters with the possible use of an incapacitating agent … they might claim they did so to restore order.”

This scenario has long been a concern among treaty advocates; a domestic attack in what is actually a civil war might be used to mask a violation of the convention’s prohibition of chemical strikes in conflict, she said.

“[BZ] can kill you -- like tear gas in a nursing home -- but it’s not really a weapon,” Lewis said in a Monday phone interview. “Is it testing the limits?  Maybe. But there’s no evidence that they used it at all.”

Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who tracks the Syria conflict, also said he is “not convinced” there is credible evidence that Assad’s military has unleashed BZ or any other chemical agent.

A chemical attack might be most likely to occur as a last gasp before the regime falls, he and a number of other experts have speculated.

White advocated that the United States prepare military forces now to respond quickly to a chemical attack that could occur at any time. Washington should be ready in the event that it “determines that there is credible, not necessarily unambiguous, evidence that a lethal CW agent has been used,” he said.

Lewis agreed that “strong evidence” of deadly chemical use -- mustard gas, sarin or VX -- would be needed before ratcheting up U.S. involvement in Syria.

“If somebody made and stockpiled BZ, that’s not a good thing to do and is a violation of the CWC,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s not the same thing as dropping VX on people. The question is: Where do you draw your red line?”

This much is clear, Lewis wrote last week in his online post: The White House “should not take a decision to intervene on the basis of the disinformation or propaganda we pay Syrian activists to create."

“Imagine the consequences," he said in a wry allusion to intelligence failures in Iraq, "if the president were to order hundreds or thousands of U.S. servicemen and women into harm's way to prevent an evil dictator from using weapons of mass destruction that turn out to be completely imaginary?”