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U.S. Says Assad Caught With Sarin. Again.

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The U.S. government was informed months ago that an international monitoring body found traces of chemical weapons that President Bashar al-Assad had promised to turn over, including sarin gas -- a clear violation of the deal he struck with President Obama after crossing the administration’s "red line" two years ago.

Officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told the Obama administration early this year that its inspectors had found traces of two banned chemical weapons during an inspection of the Syrian government’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in the district of Barzeh near Damascus, two administration officials told us. A report by Reuters May 8 said that OPCW inspectors had found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at the site in separate inspections in December and January.

The discovery set off a months-long debate inside the administration about how to respond. President Obama is said to have not yet decided. Meanwhile, a coalition of rebel groups on the ground has been attacking the area around the facility, raising the danger that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the rebels, many of whom are linked to Islamic extremists.

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“The real danger is if the regime loses control of these chemical materials,” one administration official who works on the Middle East told us.

This official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the highly sensitive intelligence gathered by the OPCW, said that the discovery confirmed long-held suspicions inside the U.S. government that Syria was not completely forthcoming when it declared its chemical weapons in 2013 (part of a bargain to avoid U.S. airstrikes).

“The sarin revelations shouldn’t be a surprise given the regime’s track record,” former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told us. “It’s a violation of the deal we struck with the Russians and it’s a violation of the deal the Syrian regime struck with the UN.”

The OPCW’s discovery shows that Assad has violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, which codified the deal in 2013 and required Assad to declare all of his chemical weapons stockpiles and turn them over for destruction, Ford said. The resolution provides for penalties against the Syrian government for violations under Chapter 7, including possible sanctions or use of military force.

Ford said that the Syrian regime was also in violation of the deal because it has used chlorine gas against civilians; U.S. officials say that continues to this day. The use of chlorine as a weapon is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Assad acceded to as part of the 2013 deal.

“Deterrence needs to be established, and that is going to require Chapter 7 action by the international community. It’s time to move forward on that,” said Ford, now a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “Regarding the sarin, I have not seen any signs that the administration has followed up on that.”

U.S. officials said that the response to Assad's chemical weapons is still being debated within the administration and that their use against civilians was part of discussions between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian officials Tuesday in Moscow.

The officials said that the Assad regime was informed of the discovery and subsequently barred OPCW inspectors from returning to the facility. OPCW spokesman Peter Sawczak declined to comment on the chemical weapons discoveries but said that no final determination had been made.

“Consultations between the OPCW and Syria to clarify Syria's declaration are ongoing,” he said. “These consultations are necessarily of a confidential nature.”

The State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined to comment.

Former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn said his assessment was that Assad was concealing many chemical weapons sites and most likely still has chemical weapons capability. "It's nearly impossible to confirm that Syria got rid of all their chemical weapons," he told us. "Their track record is not one of full compliance on anything." 

A senior intelligence official told us that the U.S., working with the UN, the OPCW and other international partners, has intelligence indicating that more than 10 of Assad’s suspected chemical weapons sites had not been disclosed. But the U.S. didn’t always favor confronting Assad about them.

“We knew of sites that Assad didn’t declare,” this official said. “It’s a balancing act. You want to do something to get rid of it, but you also don’t want to show them all your cards.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was the first high-ranking U.S. official to publicly call out the Assad regime for the “discrepancies” in its declarations of chemical weapons stockpiles, last September. Power’s skepticism came only one month after Obama's "mission accomplished" moment, when he said that Syria's “declared” chemical stockpiles had been eliminated.

Last week, Power told Charlie Rose that the international community has destroyed 98 percent of Assad’s “declared” chemical weapons. When asked how many chemical weapons Assad hasn’t declared, she said: “That is an open question. That is something we are pushing the OPCW on.”

“I think you are going to see a push on diplomacy in the coming weeks, and it is our hope is that if the nuclear deal can go forward and we can get the terms we need in that space, that you will start to see a shift in Iran’s posture,” said Power.

She also said that although the OPCW has no mandate to assign accountability for the use of chlorine bombs, “everybody knows” the Assad regime is responsible because, among other things, they are the only involved party that has helicopters to drop those bombs.

The administration has always said that the deal to get Assad to turn over his chemical weapons was one of the successes of U.S. policy on Syria, but within Syria chemical weapons are still killing civilians at an alarming rate.

For the international community, the inspectors' revelation that Assad has kept banned chemical weapons is important; with that report, the UN would have grounds to hold the regime accountable for breaking the 2013 deal. But first, the OPCW has to publicly declare what it found in Barzeh.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net