Bipartisan Senate delegation calls for shift in Syria aid

U.S. humanitarian aid to Syria is not enough, not going through the right channels, and not reaching the people who need it most, according to a bipartisan group of senators who just returned from a trip to the Middle East.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) led a delegation last week to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Afghanistan that included Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kirsten Gilibrand (D-NY). Several of the delegation members spoke at a Tuesday press conference on the trip and all called for more U.S. humanitarian aid to be given to Syrian refugees and the Syrian opposition directly, rather than being funneled through NGOs or international intermediaries.

"The main area of agreement among us, both Democrats and Republicans, is the need for the United States to do more to help the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom," said McCain. "From Syrian opposition leaders and refugees we heard a very consistent message. We heard that the longer this conflict goes, the worse it gets for Syria, the region, and indeed the world, with increasing numbers of extremists falling into the fight... We heard desperate pleas for U.S. support and assistance."

McCain told the story of a teacher in a refugee camp the delegation visited in Jordan, whom he said was representative of the refugees the delegation met on the trip.

"We heard a visceral frustration and outright anger, especially from the refugees, about the inadequate level of the U.S. support and assistance in their struggle against the Assad regime," he said. "This woman warned us that these Syrian children would, in her words, seek revenge on those who did not help Syria in its hour of greatest need."

Specifically, the Syrians want increased humanitarian aid to go directly through the new Syrian opposition council that President Barack Obama publicly recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Several of the senators said that the United States must increase support for the opposition body lest it lose the support of the Syrians on the ground it hopes to eventually lead.

"We are delivering significant humanitarian assistance into Syria, but it's going through international aid agencies and being distributed out of Damascus, rather than in ways that strengthen the credibility and the reach and the effectiveness of the Syrian opposition council," Coons said.

The delegation met with Syrian opposition council leaders in Cairo.

"They expressed that they need more support from the international community," Ayotte said. "One of the requests the Syrian opposition coalition made to us is that they be the recipient of humanitarian aid."

The senators said they all supported increased military aid to the Syrian opposition, but there was no unanimity on exactly how that aid should be given and to whom. McCain and Ayotte said they supported both directly aiding the rebel Free Syrian Army and establishing a no-fly zone. Coons, Whitehouse, and Blumenthal said they supported increased military aid to the rebels, but didn't get into specifics.

"Where we might differ is on exactly the weapons, the delivery, the means, the timing. But frankly, all of us see that the jihadists are gaining more and more ground, more and more visibility and credibility in the ongoing fight against Assad. And the United States has a shrinking window in the ability to make a difference on the ground in the fight for freedom in Syria and in the fight to sustain and stabilize our regional allies," Coons said.

"Well said," McCain chimed in.

The Cable

Secret Syria chemical weapons cable revealed

Last week, The Cable reported on the contents of a secret State Department cable that conveyed evidence of the Syrian government's use of an unknown chemical agent against its own people last month.

The Cable has since obtained the text of the original cable, which includes new details about the consulate's investigation into the incident that killed seven civilians in the besieged city of Homs on Dec. 23. The cable confirms several aspects of our original report, but also shows that the cable was less conclusive than our previous item suggested.

"A secret State Department cable has concluded that the Syrian military likely used chemical weapons against its own people in a deadly attack last month," The Cable wrote. A U.S. official further told The Cable that the document made a "compelling case" that lethal poison gas was used.

The State Department and the White House disputed that contention, and the cable itself, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, notes that the consulate staff could not say definitively if chemical weapons were used in Homs last month.

It does, however, say that after their own investigation, State Department officers were able to confirm the basic facts of the deadly attack in Homs.

"On December 23, [Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO)] implementing partner ARK reported through their media project BASMA on a possible chemical weapons attack in Homs, Syria," the secret cable stated. "This is the first time fighters from Homs, who are fighting to break a three month long siege of the city, had come across such a possible attack. The suspected attack was originally reported by doctors receiving patients exhibiting symptoms of chemical exposure."

"CSO officers spoke with three contacts, including a former Chief of Staff of the Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) chemical weapons arsenal, and confirmed the events and the symptoms and the number of casualties. CSO is not able to definitely say whether chemical weapons were in fact used in the December 23 attack."

The cable says that BASMA reported an odorless and colorless gas was dispersed in three areas in Homs: the Old City, Al Bayda, and Al Khalidiya. BASMA couldn't confirm the delivery method because the gas was dispersed at night and caused mass confusion. Initial reports said a regime ground vehicle was the delivery method, but later reports said a number of short range missiles were fired into rebel-controlled civilian areas, the cable states.

At times, the cable reflects the fog of war in a country where access to the battlefield is extremely difficult and dangerous. Some information contradicts statements from witnesses near the scene: For example, reporters told consulate staff the missiles released "clouds of white smoke," but two doctors who treated victims on the scene told The Cable that the gas was colorless but that several victims reported a pungent odor.

The consulate's own contacts reported that victims had symptoms that were "consistent with poisonous gas inhalation." A reporter for the Syria Life Network (SLN) told the consulate staff the symptoms included burning eyes, temporary blindness, relaxed and numb joints, unresponsiveness, nausea, unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, and temporary paralysis affecting the spine.

One contact interviewed by the consulate staff reported that the agent used was suspected to be Agent 15, a chemical thought to be related to BZ, an incapacitating agent controlled under schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is not a party. This contact said the agent was treatable with Visostgman-Physostigmine, Alberodquisan, and Vitamin B6. The use of the drug Atropine worsened the condition of the patients, this contact said, which would be consistent with the theory that a BZ-like compound was used.

That account directly contradicts what the two doctors in Homs told The Cable. Both said that they used Atropine on the victims and that it improved their conditions, which would mean that BZ was not the gas used.

The consulate's report also noted that one contact did not believe the gas could have been tear gas or phosphorous because none of the victims had burns on their bodies, as would be common with a phosphorous attack.

The consulate's contact also reported that most victims had dilated pupils, which contradicts the account the two doctors gave to The Cable, in which they said that most victims had pinpoint pupils, also known as miosis.

BASMA and SLN contacts reported to the consulate that seven people were killed by the dispersed gas and 50 more victims were treated in a field clinic. The seven dead were buried and videos of their burial "clearly show the absence of visual injuries," the cable stated.

CNN reported Jan. 17 that the State Department conducted a subsequent investigation into the Homs incident after receiving the secret cable from Istanbul, whereby intelligence officers watched videos of the incident and concluded that the gas was not Agent 15 but rather an unspecified "riot control agent" that was misused by the Syrian regime.

"At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Jan. 16.