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Report that Syria Used Chemical Weapons is Met with Skepticism

A report that the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against Syrians jolted foreign policy watchers yesterday. But other news outlets have cast doubt on the story.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that a “secret State Department cable has concluded that the Syrian military likely used chemical weapons against its own people in a deadly attack last month.” The attack allegedly took place in the Syrian city of Homs on December 23.

“We can't definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23,” an administration official told Rogin. Agent 15 is a powerful hallucinogen.

Chemical weapons use on Syrian civilians or on Syrian opposition fighters has long been feared by the U.S. government, and is considered a “red line” for the U.S. If chemical weapons were actually used, the prospects for U.S. intervention would likely increase. Still, it’s important to note that previous reports of Syria preparing to use chemical weapons were unsubstantiated, despite breathless corporate media reporting.

After Rogin’s report was published, the White House downplayed it. “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,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

Wired’s Noah Shachtman also cautioned against reading too much into the report:

It’s important to note, however, that this was the conclusion of a single consulate within the State Department, and there is still wide disagreement within the U.S. government over whether the Homs attack should be characterized as a chemical weapons incident...

When U.S. officials first caught wind of Syrian rebels’ chemical weapons claim, the officials didn’t make much of it. In graphic videos uploaded to YouTube, opposition activists said they were hit by a gas that was “something similar to sarin,” a deadly nerve agent. The videos showed victims howling in agony and barely able to breathe. But the symptoms, as gruesome as they were, didn’t seem like the one produced by sarin.

There were complaints of strong smells in the videos; sarin is often odorless. There were reports that the victims inhaled large amounts of the chemical; a minuscule of amount of inhaled sarin can be fatal.

“It just doesn’t jibe with chemical weapons,” one U.S. official told Danger Room at the time.

Later accounts from Homs more closely match what one might expect from a nerve gas victim. Rogin spoke with Dr. Nashwan Abu Abdo, a neurologist from Homs, who talked about victims with pinpoint pupils, “choking on their own secretions.”

Abdo’s descriptions, however, don’t correspond with the conclusions of the State Department cable. A hallucinogen like BZ is unlikely to produce the effects Abdo outlined; such drugs typically cause pupils to grow, for instance, not contract.

Something horrible happened in Homs on December 23. Exactly what that horrible event was still isn’t clear.

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