Exclusive: U.S. To Bring Chemical Weapons Witnesses Out Of Syria

With U.N. investigators unable to enter Syria, the State Department is working to bring evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons across the border into Turkey, reports Josh Rogin.

The State Department is working behind the scenes to identify medical professionals who have evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria and is planning to help move them out of the country to meet with United Nations investigators in Turkey, officials tell The Daily Beast.

The previously undisclosed effort was authorized by the White House, and is now being prepared by the State Department in conjunction with Syrian nongovernmental organizations they have been working with on the ground, two administration officials said. The U.N. team tasked with investigating alleged uses of chemical weapons inside Syria has not been able to enter the country because of a dispute over access with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, so the State Department is bringing the medical professionals and physiological samples taken from victims of the attacks to them.

Last month the White House acknowledged in a letter to Congress that the U.S. intelligence community had determined with various levels of confidence that chemical weapons—Sarin gas specifically—had been used in Syria on two occasions. But President Obama said following that disclosure that he couldn’t confirm that his “red line” for Syria had been crossed because the chain of custody of the evidence could not be confirmed. While the administration said it was very likely that the regime was responsible, the Syrian government and the Russian government claim that in fact it was the rebels who have used Sarin as a weapon.

“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama told reporters in August. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” But his administration later seemed to roll back that standard, with an official telling The New York Times that the president’s “red line” remark was “unscripted.”

Now, as the Obama administration considers moving toward greater direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, there is a new push to confirm that chemical weapons were used in Syria by the regime.

“The administration is trying to bring international legitimacy to their claims,” an administration official told The Daily Beast. “It provides additional pretext for greater political pressure on the regime.”

There is also a concern that if the U.N. does not concur that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, rather than the rebels, the regime might feel empowered to use them again and perhaps on a greater scale.

“It’s pretty clear that the regime will do anything it takes to survive, even if it flaunts international norms,” the official said.

The U.N. investigation has been criticized because it has not been able to negotiate access to enter Syria and its investigation seems stalled. On Wednesday, Robert Serry, the U.N. Middle East peace envoy, insisted at the U.N. Security Council that the Syrian regime allow the U.N. investigative team inside Syria. That team is led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, who visited Washington recently.

"Amid mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons, we once again urge the government of Syria to allow the investigation to proceed without further delay," Serry said. “The mission [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon established to investigate the claims has been doing what it can to gather and analyze available information."

Also, a top U.N. human-rights official, Carla Del Ponte, told a Swiss television station earlier this month that she believed the rebels were the ones who used chemical weapons, comments that the U.N. walked back soon after.

The State Department effort to bring the medical professionals to the U.N. investigators is meant to prove the actual use of the weapons but also to persuade the U.N. investigators that the regime is responsible, not the rebels. The medical professionals will come from various locations and may be brought to Turkey through third locations, such as Jordan or Lebanon, one source close to the issue said.

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“This is a major milestone. It’s just a matter of time before the U.N. reaches the same conclusion that the U.S. intelligence community [and the governments] of France and the UK came to,” the source said. “From a chain-of-custody perspective this is as close as you can get.”

Lawmakers who are urging the administration to get more involved in the Syrian civil war are upset that the U.N. would even consider that the rebels used chemical weapons or doubt that chemical weapons have been used.

“I think there is overwhelming evidence the regime did this. If you were Bashar al-Assad, you would use a little bit” to test the international response, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast. But this idea that the rebels are using it is outrageous; they don’t have access to these kinds of weapons. It’s another straw man.”

The source also said that the medical professionals could bring physical evidence with them that would help prove that chemical weapons were used by the regime several times. The U.S. intelligence community has acknowledged only two instances of chemical weapons use, in Aleppo and the suburbs around Damascus, both on March 19. There are several other alleged uses that activists and medical professionals point to, including in a December incident in Homs that the State Department investigated and an April attack in the city of Daraya.

For Syria experts in Washington, the number of chemical weapons attacks is crucial because they see President Obama as moving his “red line” on Syria, which was once that any use of chemical weapons would be a trigger for more direct U.S. involvement but now seems to be dependent on multiple uses.

On April 26, Obama said if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."

Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told The Daily Beast that the if the doctors bring the U.N. evidence of chemical weapons use from more than one site, that would constitute “systematic use.” But it remains to be seen if even that would cause the White House to acknowledge that Assad had crossed Obama’s red line.

“On the one hand, it’s good that they are methodically digging through the claims of chemical weapons use in Syria,” he said. “On the other hand, if they find out that they did use them several times, is that going to go over the administration’s red line, or will the red line move or not exist at all?”

Secretary of State John Kerry commented on the controversy surrounding the use of chemical weapons and Obama’s red line in public remarks Wednesday in Amman, Jordan.

“The president obviously is deeply concerned, as are all of us, about the question of chemical weapons,” Kerry said. “And we are currently doing what the president said we would do, which is making our analysis of exactly what happened, when, and how, in order to be able to make judgments about what the president called a red line for him. And he has made it clear that remains a red line, and we will go forward from there in the days ahead.”