Questioning continues over administration's case for Syrian intervention
On Aug. 27, we set out a series of questions about the Obama administration's recent rush into a military intervention in Syria. We were concerned that the administration's claims that the Assad regime was clearly culpable for the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus lacked a demonstrated factual basis. We also noted that the proposed "limited" military effort, which would evidently have far-reaching repercussions, might well be ineffective. [See Threat Matrix report, A few more questions before we start bombing Syria.] Our analysis was necessarily preliminary, as the intelligence report justifying the administration's plans had not been released, but the speed with which the intervention was being planned called for an immediate response.
Now an article by Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo at the Associated Press about the US intelligence report issued today ostensibly justifying a US intervention appears to confirm the soundness of our questions. According to the article, US intelligence officials familiar with the contents of the report say that "the intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no 'slam dunk,' with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike."
Several key paragraphs of their article are excerpted below:Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad's supplies of chemical weapons, and Assad could have moved them in recent days as U.S. rhetoric builds. That lack of certainty means a possible series of U.S. cruise missile strikes aimed at crippling Assad's military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly chemical attack.
Over the past six months, with shifting front lines in the 2½-year-old civil war and sketchy satellite and human intelligence coming out of Syria, U.S. and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country's chemical weapons supplies, according to one senior U.S. intelligence official and three other U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence shared by the White House as reason to strike Syria's military complex. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the Syrian issue publicly.
U.S. satellites have captured images of Syrian troops moving trucks into weapons storage areas and removing materials, but U.S. analysts have not been able to track what was moved or, in some cases, where it was relocated. They are also not certain that when they saw what looked like Assad's forces moving chemical supplies, those forces were able to remove everything before rebels took over an area where weapons had been stored.
In addition, an intercept of Syrian military officials discussing the strike was among low-level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack back to an Assad insider or even a senior Syrian commander, the officials said.
US policymakers are also questioning the administration's case and plan. As the New York Times reported, "Speaker John A. Boehner wrote a letter on Wednesday to Mr. Obama asking the president to provide a 'clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action -- which is a means, not a policy -- will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy." His question is similar to one we posed in the previous Threat Matrix report: "What is the US's endgame in Syria? Reports are emerging that the Obama administration seeks to 'punish' Assad for using chemical weapons. Is this sound strategy, or a tactic that can potentially backfire?"
And if the US believes that an immediate intervention is justified due to the threat that terrorist elements may have used or have access to Syria's chemical weapons, as President Obama's comments to PBS yesterday possibly implied, it should say so, not cloak an intervention with vague and possibly erroneous assumptions. Regarding that interview, the Wall Street Journal reported:
Should Syria lose control of its stockpile of chemical weapons, the U.S. might be at risk, he said. Terrorists, in turn, could get hold of such weapons and possibly direct them against the U.S., he said.
"And we want to make sure that does not happen," he said.
Ripples of discontent with the West's rush to war in Syria, or at least, to a 'limited military intervention,' have come across the pond as well. After serious questions arose in the the British Parliament about the basis for the assertion that the Assad regime perpetrated the attacks, the government released an intelligence dossier today concluding it was "highly likely" that was the case. The Guardian reported today that British intelligence has reached a conclusion based on "open source" data that presents, according to Downing Street, "a 'compelling and conclusive' case of the involvement of the Assad regime in the chemical attack," but again, it is no slam dunk. The intelligence dossier, as reported in the Daily Mail, says: "The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.... There is no credible evidence that any opposition group has used CW. A number continue to seek a CW capability, but none currently has the capability to conduct a CW attack on this scale."
Like the US, the UK apparently has been trying to develop the case for a military intervention after the decision to intervene has been made.
It is right to keep questioning that decision at least until the order of affairs is reversed.