On Tuesday, Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” published a story on a possible chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces against Syrian rebels two days before Christmas. Rogin’s story was tied to a leaked State Department cable (signed by US consul general Frederick Kilmer) that detailed the Istanbul consulate’s review of the reports of the attack, videos of various individuals in distress, and Rogin’s own interviews with two doctors who reportedly treated the victims of the attack. According to Rogin, “An Obama administration official who reviewed the document, which was classified at the “secret” level, detailed its contents to “The Cable.” ‘We can’t definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23.’” (My AEI colleague Danielle Pletka has written here about the paucity of follow-up to this story.)
But then Wednesday, according to Reuters, when asked if the administration had any reason to believe Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, the State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, ”No.” Ms. Nuland went on to say: “When this particular message came in from Consulate Istanbul, we took it seriously, as we do with all such anecdotal reporting, and concluded at the time that we couldn’t corroborate it. We haven’t been able to corroborate it since, either.”
Not to make too fine a point of it, but not being able to “corroborate” something is not the same thing as believing it didn’t happen. And of course, the distinction is important given the fact that both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have stated that the “red line” the Syrian government could not cross without the US taking military action was the use of such weapons. Better to say one can’t prove something than have to back up a warning that you presumed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would never test you on.
It’s possible, of course, that Syrian forces did not use chemical weapons. But it’s equally possible that Assad is testing Obama’s resolve with a discrete use of a chemical weapon that does not murder in massive numbers and is used in a part of Syria in which Western observers are few. If so, Assad has now gotten his answer: the Obama administration will do everything in its power to avoid intervening. And while one can debate the wisdom of intervening in Syria and/or what that intervention should consist of, if indeed the Syrian military did use chemical weapons, the signal being sent to both Damascus and, no less important, Tehran, is that this is a president whose bluff can be called.