In a leak that could signal a crossing of President Obama's "red line" on the increasingly deadly conflict in Syria, the State Department has investigated and concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military forces used poison gas in a deadly attack on the city of Homs last month, Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reported Tuesday evening. Rogin, whose State sources are rarely questioned on the Foggy Bottom beat, got his his scoop from classified department cables:
The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to State Department headquarters in Washington last week, outlined the results of the consulate's investigation into reports from inside Syria that chemical weapons had been used in the city of Homs on Dec. 23.
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," the official said.
That December 23 date is significant, because on Christmas Eve there were hazy reports from Syrian rebels that "poisonous materials" had been dropped on the Western city of Homs, near the Lebanese border. This State Department cable — and Rogin's reporting that the chemical was not Agent 15 or tear gas but definitely a chemical weapon — would seem to lend more credibility to those claims.
But big picture-wise, the chemical attack is very significant — President Obama has specifically said that the use of chemical and biological weapons would cross his "red line" in the region and perhaps affect American policy and involvement in the country. Obama stated on August 20:
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 chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
Earlier Tuesday, Syrian rebels blamed Assad military jets for bombing Aleppo University, where upwards of 80 were feared dead.