Situation Report

FP Exclusive: Did Assad cross a red line by using chemical weapons? Israeli analyst: it’s more likely a form of tear gas; Hagel, on his way; Panetta to the Pope: “pray for me”; Jakes is back at Hack n’ Flack and a little more.

FP Exclusive: Did Assad cross a red line by using chemical weapons? Israeli analyst: it’s more likely a form of tear gas; Hagel, on his way; Panetta to the Pope: “pray for me”; Jakes is back at Hack n’ Flack and a little more.

Did Assad use chemical weapons last month? An American cable from U.S. diplomats in Turkey says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad likely used chemical weapons against his own people Dec. 23 in the city of Homs. The Cable’s Josh Rogin reports that American diplomats in Turkey conducted a previously undisclosed, intensive investigation into claims that Assad used chemical weapons and made what an Obama administration official who reviewed the cable called a "compelling case" that Assad’s military forces had indeed used a deadly form of poison gas. The cable was signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, Scott Frederic Kilner, and sent to the State Department in Washington last week. The story was picked up by The New York Times and other sites.

Kilner’s report detailed the conclusions of a series of interviews with activists, doctors, and defectors in what Rogin was told by an administration official was one of the most comprehensive efforts by the American government to investigate claims by internal Syrian sources. The interviews included one from a defector named Mustafa al-Sheikh, who was once a major general in Assad’s army and a key official in the Syrian military’s WMD program. Rogin reported that the symptoms seen in Homs match the effects of Agent 15, a CX-level incapacitating agent. Two doctors who were on the scene Dec. 23 in Homns whom Rogin interviewed said it may or may not have been Agent 15, but it was definitely a chemical weapon, not tear gas.

An Obama administration official to The Cable: "We can’t definitively say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23."

But the White House and Pentagon dismissed the report, responding based on the similar talking points: "Media reports regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria have not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program. The Secretary of Defense has said that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, or fails to meet its obligation to secure them, they will be held accountable," the Pentagon’s Lt. Col. Steve Warren told Situation Report.

Israeli analyst Ely Karmon told Situation Report that he does not believe that Assad used chemical weapons in the incident described by the American cable. "Perhaps he used some stronger tear gas," Karmon said, adding that in certain conditions such gas can be fatal. Karmon is a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. He lectures on terrorism and teaches a course on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism and serves as an adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Assad knows the use of chemical weapons is a red line for the U.S. and has no real incentive to use them, he said. "The regime has no interest in using chemical weapons because they know this is a clear red line and it could produce a military intervention, even by NATO, or by the Turks, who have been preparing for a long period of time for such a scenario." Karmon believes the real threat is the enriched nuclear material available in Syria that, left unguarded, could be passed into Iran. Rogin’s report –

An important Sunni ally was killed in a suicide bombing. An Iraqi member of parliament who had also been the leader of a local council during the Anbar awakening, Efan al Essawi, was killed in a suicide attack yesterday. Essawi was part of the U.S.-backed group of Sunnis who switched sides and helped the U.S. fight al Qaeda in Iraq, a shift credited as a turning point in the Iraq war. Essawi and a bodyguard were killed by a man.disguised as a construction worker, who approached them at a construction site and blew himself up. NYT: "Over the past few weeks, thousands of Sunnis have staged protests, mostly in Anbar, to show their anger against the government. They and senior opposition politicians have made repeated calls for Mr. Maliki to resign."

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Panetta is in Rome. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta continued his final trip, in Europe, and met with Pope Benedict XVI. After an event at the Vatican at which the Pope presided,, Panetta walked the steps at the Pius VI Audience Hall to greet the Pope, Situation Report was told. Benedict thanked Panetta, telling him, "Thank you for helping to protect the world." Panetta’s reply: "Pray for me."

Situation Report corrects: We reported yesterday, mistakenly it turns out, that Panetta visited Air Base Lajes in Portugal. He didn’t visit the base, but discussed the downsizing of the mission there when he met with the Portuguese. We regret the error.

AP’s Lara Jakes is back from Baghdad and working as a national security writer in AP’s DC bureau. And Thursday, between 6-10 p.m., the Hack and Flack will gather to honor Jakes, who is the group’s founding hack. (For those who don’t know, the group is for D.C. "news breakers, makers and other invited guests.") This Hack and Flack will be at Fire & Sage at the Marriot at 775 12th St. NW. Send an e-mail to Marc Raimondi at Contribution: $10 for the sliders, wings, fries, chips/dips, veggie platter, and then it’s a cash bar at happy hour prices all night. Follow them at @washingtonflack. Jakes, who recently returned after three years in Baghdad working for the AP bureau there: "I loved being in Baghdad, but if I’d stayed any longer I would be competing for Iraqi citizenship with Vice President Biden, who always claimed he deserved it due to how often he visited."

At Stimson this morning at 9:30, a panel discusses civil society in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Speaking: Andrew Wilder, director, Afghanistan and Pakistan programs, United States Institute of Peace; Sadrudin Pardhan, director, Civil Society Resource Center in Karachi; Salman Khimani, program coordinator, Civil Society Resource Center in Karachi; and Mohammad Mayar, formerly with the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief in Kabul. Stimson’s David Michel will moderate.

Inhofe says he can’t support Hagel. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) met with Chuck Hagel, nom’ed to be defense secretary, and said he just can’t support him. Inhofe said Hagel’s responses to his questions about sequestration, nuclear disarmament, Iran, and Israel didn’t pass muster.  "Chuck Hagel is a good person, and it was a pleasure to serve with him in the United States Senate. I am so very appreciative of the sacrifices he and his brother made to serve this country during the Vietnam War. We had a very cordial meeting today in which we discussed his nomination. Unfortunately, as I told him during our meeting today, we are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination."

Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said after meeting with Hagel that he would support his nomination. With Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s statement that he would not block the nomination, Hagel’s confirmation is all but assured.

50 former statesman signed a letter supporting Hagel. An informal, ad hoc group called "Ambassadors for Hagel" support his confirmation as Sec-Def. The letter is being delivered to Senate leadership and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which may schedule his confirmation hearing as early as the next week or two.

The letter was signed by these 50 people: John Beyrle, former ambassador to Russia and Bulgaria; Barbara K. Bodine, former ambassador to Yemen; Avis Bohlen, former ambassador to Bulgaria and former assistant secretary for arms control; Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of State for political affairs, ambassador to NATO and Greece; Elinor Constable, former ambassador to Kenya; Edwin G. Corr, former ambassador to Peru, Bolivia and El Salvador; Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan; Ruth A. Davis, former ambassador to Benin and former director general of the U.S. Foreign Service; James Dobbins, former ambassador to the European Community and assistant secretary of State for Europe; John Gunther Dean, former ambassador to Cambodia, Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand, and India; Edward Djerejian, former ambassador to Israel and Syria; Nancy Ely-Raphel, former ambassador to Slovenia; Robert Gelbard, former ambassador to Indonesia and Bolivia and assistant secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement; James Goodby, former ambassador to Finland; William Harrop, former ambassador to Israel and State Department Inspector General; Ulric Haynes, Jr. former ambassador to Algeria; Christopher Hill, former ambassador to Iraq; Carla Hills, former United States secretary of Housing and Urban Development; H. Allen Holmes, former ambassador to Portugal and assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations; Thomas L. Hughes, former director of Intelligence and Research, Department of State; Dennis Jett, former ambassador to Mozambique and Peru; Craig Johnstone, former ambassador to Algeria; Theodore Kattouf, former ambassador to United Arab Emirates and Syria; Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Sam Lewis, former ambassador to Israel; William H. Luers, former ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia; Dick McCormack, former ambassador to the Organization of American States and United States under secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs; Thomas E. McNamara, former ambassador to Colombia and ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism, and Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Tom Miller, former ambassador to Greece and Bosnia-Herzevovina; William G. Miller, former ambassador to Ukraine; Richard Murphy, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Syria, the Philippines; Cameron Munter, former ambassador to Pakistan and Serbia; Ronald Neumman, former ambassador Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain; Joseph Nye, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and former assistant secretary of Defense for International Security; Robert B. Oakley, former ambassador to Pakistan, Somalia, and Zaire; Phyllis E. Oakley, former assistant secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and Refugees; W. Robert Pearson, former ambassador to Turkey; Pete Peterson, former ambassador to Vietnam; Thomas R. Pickering, former  under secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador to Israel, India Jordan, Russia and the United Nations; Steven Pifer, former ambassador to Ukraine; Howard B. Schaffer, former ambassador to Bangladesh; Patrick Theros, former ambassador to Qatar; Nicholas Veliotes, former ambassador to Jordan and Egypt; Richard Viets, former ambassador to Jordan, Tanzania, and Portugal; Edward Walker, former ambassador to Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates; Jennone Walker, former ambassador to the Czech Republic; John Whitehead, former deputy secretary of State, Ross Wilson, former ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan; Frank G. Wisner, former under secretary of defense for policy, ambassador to Egypt and India.