Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, suggested that Russia was a possible source of the chemical weapons used in Syria. (Update: A Pentagon press secretary says, "Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia." Full statement below.)
The exchange came nearly two hours into the day's testimony, which we covered more fully here. It was a seemingly off-handed observance by the secretary, one which we at first thought referred to chemical weapons at large, not just in Syria. But prompted by by BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray, we went back to the clip.
Rep. Joe Wilson: Mr. Secretary, I don't mean to be rude, but where did the chemical weapons come from?
Hagel: Well, there's no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons — significant stockpiles of chemical weapons …
Wilson: (interrupting) … from a particular country?
Hagel: Well, the Russians supply them, others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.
There's wiggle room in that statement, but the implication is clear upon review. Russia may have been the source of the gas that killed over 1,000 Syrians.
There's history to back it up. The alliance between Russia and Syria is long-standing, with the former providing the latter with arms throughout its two-year-old civil war. And Russia has a long history of the production of chemical weapons, as noted by the Federation of American Scientists. (The organization also outlines those Syria might have at hand.)
Russia, as reported by the Kremlin-sponsored network RT, has suggested that the August 21 attack at issue during the debate in Washington may have been the work of Syrian rebels. That strongly contradicts the evidence referred to by the Obama administration and, specifically, by Secretary of State John Kerry during his appearances on Capitol Hill.
Hagel's assertion comes at a particularly tricky time for his boss. The president is on his way to Russia to attend the G20 economic summit, but will not have a unilateral meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in part due to that country's embrace of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Putin has consistently argued against intervention in Syria, even suggesting he might send delegates to Washington to argue against the authorization Obama is seeking.
We've reached out to a Defense Department spokesperson for response on Hagel's remarks; we'll update the story when we get one.
Update 6:51p.m.: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little sends this statement:
In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program. Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime.