U.S. Tries to Play Down Media Report That Syria Used Chemical Weapons

According to report in Foreign Policy, a secret American investigation reveals Assad forces used a poisonous gas against his own people in Homs on December 23, 2012.

The United States on Tuesday poured cold water on a media report that chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian conflict, but reiterated that if Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government did resort to these weapons, it would be held to account.

"The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program," White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "The President was very clear when he said that if the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons, or fails to meet its obligation to secure them, the regime will be held accountable," the statement continued.

He was responding to a report in Foreign Policy magazine earlier Tuesday that the U.S. State Department had concluded the Syrian military likely used poison gas against its own people in a deadly attack last month.

According to the article, American State Department officials who were in Turkey conducting a covert investigation into claims Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons have concluded that a "compelling case" can be made that a "deadly form of poison gas" was used by Assad's forces.

A cable that arrived in Washington last week signed by U.S. consul general in Istanbul Scott Frederic Kilner affirms that chemical weapons were used in Homs on December 23. The investigation includes, inter alia, details of a meeting between the consulate staff and Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-level defector and former general in Assad's army.

According to Foreign Policy: "An Obama administration official who reviewed the document, which was classified at the 'secret' level, detailed its contents. 'We can't definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on December 23,' the official said.

The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross the 'red line' President Barack Obama first established in an August 20 statement. "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," Obama said."

Foreign Policy reports that many in the State Department believe that Assad is testing U.S. red lines, and officials are concerned that if it does not provide a strong response, Assad "may be emboldened to escalate his use of such weapons of mass destruction," Foreign Policy's report explains.

"The White House's threats to react to Assad's WMD activity have softened over time. In Obama's August 20 statement, he indicated that 'a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around' would trigger U.S. action.

"Obama then shifted his warning to Assad about red lines in December, after intelligence reports stated that the Syrian regime had moved some precursor chemicals out of storage and mixed them, making them easier to deploy. Now, Obama's red line is that the United States will react if Syria uses these weapons."

The report also specifies that activists have been circulating videos of the victims online. In one of the videos, victims can be seen struggling for breath and choking on their own vomit.