January 17 2013
Evidence has been found suggesting that Syria’s military used chemical weapons against its own people last month, in what one Israeli intelligence official said last night was a test to gauge the reaction of the US and its allies.
An investigation by US diplomats into claims that President Assad deployed chemical agents against a rebel stronghold in the beleaguered city of Homs concluded that there was a “compelling case” that some form of poison gas had been used, according to a leaked diplomatic cable signed by the US Consul-General in Istanbul.
“We can’t definitely say 100 per cent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on December 23,” an administration official who saw the document told a respected US magazine. The official was referring to a form of incapacitating agent that attacks the nervous system.
A British expert, asked by The Times to look at several videoclips on YouTube that purport to show victims of the attack in Homs, said that he thought the symptoms of respiratory problems and coughing up of mucous were more likely to have been caused by a different kind of chemical agent, known as sternutators.
“Something has caused their lungs to be quite severely affected,” said Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds. “The symptoms are consistent with something like Adamsite or another sternutator agent. The fact that it’s several people suggests that something has been released in the vicinity and affected a group of people and they are all absolutely terrified.”
President Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would mark a “red line” for the United States, paving the way for intervention in the bloody civil war between rebel fighters and the regime.
However, the White House was sceptical yesterday of the report in Foreign Policy magazine. “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 programme,” said Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman. “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.”
The State Department also denied the accuracy of the report. “We found no credible evidence to corroborate or confirm chemical weapons,” it said.
Israeli officials said that there had been a “well-known incident” that took place in Syria in late December, but a senior intelligence source described it as an “isolated and unique occurrence”. He said: “Whatever this was, was a testing of the waters. It was a sign . . . that Assad is not playing around. Assad has the means and the knowledge to use chemical weapons to a devastating effect in Syria, if that is what he wanted. That is not what has happened so far, so we know he is still holding back, or being held back.”
Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, the military think-tank in London, said that what may have been deployed was the sort of chemical agent used in crowd control, rather than a devastating poison such as sarin or mustard gas.
Washington would need to be absolutely certain that a chemical weapon had been deployed before agreeing to US intervention, he added. “They are being ultra-cautious.”
A senior Israeli military official said there were many “false alarms” that chemical weapons had been used in Syria or that they had been captured by rebel forces. But he added: “The truth is, either reality is just a hair away.”
General Martin Dempsey, the highest-ranking US military officer, admitted this month that there was little America could do to stop Syria from using chemical weapons. “The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable. You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, persistent surveillance, you’d have to actually see it before it happened,” he said.
He made it clear that the US would be reluctant to send troops into Syria to seize control of the chemical weapons while the security environment in the country was “hostile”. This was the reason why President Obama had issued his “red line” warning, hoping that the implied threat of military retaliation from the US would act as a deterrent.