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Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
U.S. Cites Evidence of Syrian Sarin Use

Kelsey Davenport

The U.S. intelligence community has determined with “varying degrees of confidence” that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against its own people, the White House said last month.

The April 25 letter, sent to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), said that the nerve agent sarin may have been used “on a small scale” in Syria but that the United States cannot confirm “how exposure occurred and under what conditions” because the “chain of custody” for the evidence, which included “physiological samples,” is “not clear.” More evidence is needed to provide “some degree of certainty” to inform U.S. decision-making, said the letter, which was signed by Miguel Rodriguez, President Barack Obama’s director of legislative affairs.

Last summer, Obama said that the use or movement of chemical weapons in Syria is a “redline” for the United States and there would be “enormous consequences” in the event of either action. (See ACT, September 2012.)

A White House official reaffirmed this redline in a April 25 press briefing, but in an apparent reference to erroneous intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons program prior to 2003, said that the United States has learned from its “recent experience that intelligence assessments are not alone sufficient” and “credible and corroborated facts” are necessary to determine if chemical weapons were used. If such a determination is made, “all options are on the table” for a U.S. response, the official said.

Obama said in April 26 remarks that the United States will work with the international community to obtain “strong evidence” of chemical weapons use, which he said would change the calculus of how Washington approaches Syria.

Because Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which requires member states to declare and destroy their chemical weapons, the exact size and composition of its program is unknown. However, according to the U.S. intelligence community’s most recent “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” Syria possesses a “large, complex, and geographically dispersed” chemical weapons program, which includes a stockpile of chemical warfare agents, such as sarin, sulfur mustard, and VX, that can be delivered by “missiles, aerial bombs, and possibly artillery rockets.”

The April 25 letter said that the administration believes that the Assad regime “maintains custody” of Syria’s chemical weapons and that any use of chemical agents “very likely” would have been by the regime.

The U.S. statement follows similar allegations made by France, Israel, Qatar, and the United Kingdom. In an April 26 interview with the BBC, British Prime Minister David Cameron said there is increasing evidence that chemical weapons have been used, likely by government forces. Three days earlier, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence research and analysis division, said that, “to the best of our understanding,” there was lethal use of chemical weapons in Syria.

UN Action

In the April 25 letter, the Obama administration said it would push for a comprehensive UN investigation to evaluate the evidence of chemical weapons use.

After allegations that chemical weapons were used near Aleppo on March 19, Assad requested that the United Nations investigate the claims. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the UN would investigate in conjunction with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which oversees implementation of the CWC, and the World Health Organization. (See ACT, April 2013.)

The team planned to begin investigations in Syria early last month, but in an April 17 statement, Ban said that Syria has not allowed investigators into the country due to a disagreement over the scope of the UN inquiry. Syria wants the UN investigation restricted to the March 19 incident, which it blames on the rebels, whereas Ban said the mission must be to investigate “all the allegations” made by member states.

Paul Walker, a former senior adviser for the House Armed Services Committee, told Arms Control Today in an April 25 e-mail that the first step is to allow UN inspectors to visit all the sites they requested to see, meet possible victims of the alleged attacks, and review the medical reports from the injured and dead. He said any samples taken should be “strictly controlled and analyzed by OPCW licensed labs.” Laboratories on the territories of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council could also be used “in order to bring in the Russians and Chinese,” said Walker, who now is director of security and sustainability at Global Green USA.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a April 25 statement that, on the basis of the intelligence assessment, the redlines “have been crossed” and action must be taken to prevent large-scale use of chemical weapons. She said the UN Security Council should take “strong and meaningful action to end” the conflict in Syria.

If new accusations are referred to the Security Council, Russia, a main ally of Syria, will be the “big elephant” in the room because Moscow will feel it is being outmaneuvered by Ban, the United States, and Israel, said Walker, who is a board member of the Arms Control Association.