Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons has been a point of tension. Assad’s use of chemical weapons has often been deemed the “red line” when it comes to US intervention. This blog has addressed the fears surrounding Syria’s chemical weapons twice before, here and here.
Syria’s chemical weapons are, once again, back in the news as of late. A recent cable from the US State Department alleges that a chemical agent was used in the city of Homs just before Christmas. Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy was the first to break the news on January 15. Rogin quotes an Obama official 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.” The cable, classified at the “secret” level, has understandably caused an uproar that continues nearly two weeks later.
The latest brush with Syria’s chemical weapons has not only illustrated the ongoing devastation of the nearly two-year conflict but has also renewed fears over rogue elements, such as al-Qaeda-like groups within Syria gaining possession of the country’s chemical stockpiles. Israel seems to have increased its alert over Syria’s chemical weapons by taking measures to prepare for a situation in which these weapons fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-like groups or even Hezbollah in South Lebanon. Israel has moved at least one of its Iron Dome batteries to the northern city of Haifa, near the Lebanese and Syria borders. While the move is being called “routine,” it is unlikely that recent events in Syria don’t play some role. Israel has also sent its National Security Council head, Yaakov Amidror, to Moscow for a “lightning visit” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Amidror has been sent to convince Russian officials to take greater steps towards preventing Syria’s stockpiles from falling into the hands of rogue actors.
But the recent uproar isn’t confined merely to worries about terrorist groups or disgust over the continuing violence in Syria. Some individuals have questioned the reliability of the cable and have pointed out evidence that, like many accounts of events happening in Syria, the recent allegation of chemical-weapons-use in Homs is awash in inconsistencies. Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker wrote an in-depth examination of the evidence from the cable and from Rogin’s own work and concludes that the agent used in the attack before Christmas was not, in fact, Agent 15. Instead it was a nerve gas–but not sarin. According to Khatchadourian, fingers point towards the use of a commercial pesticide that can cause some of the same symptoms as sarin gas, albeit with far fewer deaths. Khatchadourian also cites the latest response from the State Department: ‘Today, a State Department spokesperson added that the secret cable’s contents had been mischaracterized by Rogin’s source, and that there was “no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used.” Khatchadourian’s conclusion calls into question who the perpetrator of of the alleged attack really was and what the motivation behind such an attack could have been, in light of the developments.
At Foreign Policy, where Rogin posted his initial story, Jeffrey Lewis takes the argument one step farther than Khatchadourian and details the history of Agent 15–that is, of a chemical agent that is entirely fictional. Lewis questions the credibility of the claim of the attack with wit, but his analysis doesn’t stop there. Throughout the article, he returns time and again to this question: Even if there had been a chemical attack, why is the red line the use of chemical weapons and not the use of torture or the killing of civilians that occurs every day in Syria?
Lewis speaks the truth. Chemical weapons use or no, the violence rages on in Syria.