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.

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13 Comments

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    We’re concerned with what Bashar did, or didn’t do?
    I’ve seen reports that the eastern Damascus neighborhood was under artillery fire from the hills of western Damascus.
    That’s Maher’s turf — Republican Guard and 4th Armored Div.
    Everything I’ve seen regarding the regime’s inner circle says Bashar was a politics guy back in the 90s. Maher was always the military one.
    If the international legal eagles and Fogged-up Bottoms are watching Bashar, looking for culpability, they may very well be watching the wrong man.
    IMHO, Maher is likely to be in day-to-day charge of fighting the insurrection — calling the shots.

  • irebukeu says:

    Just one potential backfire is — Allied bombing coupled with a rebel offensive and a collapse in Syrian lines as a result leads to al nusrah over running chemical stockpiles intact. That would be a nightmare.
    Just when are we going to wake up?

  • Caleb says:

    I, for one, am perfectly fine with a military intervention in Syria. But, before any of you guys jump at my throat, let me explain myself.
    //www.defenddemocracy.org/media-hit/assad-has-called-obamas-bluff/
    Using the above link to help my argument, I think Mr. Gerecht makes a good point about our credibility being on the line. I may be a minority, but I am in favor of keeping strong American influence in the region. Doing nothing, especially after Assad has “called our bluff” on our “red line”, would have serious repercussions to our influence and credibility in the greater Middle East. I also think of the message that sends to Iran, a country we’ve been pressing very hard with sanctions and subtly hinting military action if all else fails. It doesn’t send a very powerful message does it?
    In my opinion, to make any significance at all, we would need to strike hard at various government installations (and maybe we “miss” and end up hitting some al-Qaeda targets). By “striking hard” I mean more than just a one-day ordeal, we’re talking at least a few days of strikes. A one-day scenario of a few missile strikes has very little significance in the grand scheme of things; which, that means the strikes would be utterly pointless (similar to Operation Infinite Reach).
    I don’t think this should happen relatively soon, though. I think we should sit down, look at the evidence thoroughly and actually plan a detailed, coherent operation that extensively addresses all the major concerns and problems that comes with this (I know there are many). If we can legally justify such an operation, then it should be implemented. I also don’t think this should be a unilateral operation; moreover, I think the only way to go at this is multilaterally.
    The administration should also outline our strategic goals here and how we would go about securing said goals. If it takes us a month or more to thoroughly plan, set up a coalition and outline these goals, then so be it.
    But, what do I know? I’m just a poli-sci student.
    Related question for anyone to answer: Would it at all be possible, or smart, to arm the Syrian Kurds? I mean, the Kurds have always been a staunch US ally and they’ve always been willing to fight. I’m sure there are some consequences to that regarding Turkey, but could we not do that as sort of a hedging policy? To clarify, I’m not for or against the Kurdish “strategy” I just want to kind of “test the waters”, if that makes sense.

  • My2Cents says:

    from //www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-obama-dilemma-20130828,0,3890786.story

    One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked”

    “They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic,” he said.

    As usual the Whitehouse likes to believe they can manipulate the situation at will, despite the fact that they wouldn’t be in the situation in the first place if they could.

  • Andre says:

    Perhaps a solution in Syria might be to prepose UN observers watch the chem weapons to ensure they r not used or captured by AQ. We already have everything in place for strikes. Perhaps it would actually be accept by Syria and in the UN as an alternative to attacking Assad.

  • Cleo Noel says:

    The UK Joint Intel Committee document is a joke!! I love how it just makes the same broad claims that the politicians make. No evidence just a trust us we are right assertion. I want widest dissemination on the question of FAE usage being the culprit vs. CW Agent. And if the UN inspectors say that they find trace sarin or VX that still does not prove that Assad’s forces did it or even if a lone Captain or Major did do it that he was not corrupted or a fellow traveler with Al Nusra. Remember the AQ triple agent who was a Eqyptian Army Major who infiltrated the CIA and FBI after 1993 WTC bombing?!
    A Falaq-2 Fuel Air Explosive (FAE) Rocket that failed to fully detonate could be spun into a “Chemical Warfare” Attack (see below). The Macabre Irony here is that if the FAE works as designed many many people are killed in a nasty thermobaric explosion but if not than they could die from chemical inhalation from the unspent munition thus dying from chemicals (but not the same as a Chemical Warfare Agent; ie. sarin, VX) and Obama can still spin it like it was a CW attack – cynical and deceitful !!!
    “It fits much more logically with what we would expect the Syrian regime to use while the UN chemical inspectors were in the same city; 3) an undetonated or not fully detonated fuel air explosive would spread a deadly chemical cloud just like a chemical air burst (which it is) of whatever chemical fuel is in the weapon, often ethylene oxide. It is a deadly cloud to inhale, but not near as deadly as sarin, mustard, or vw, or example, which explains the reports of these attacks have not been nearly as deadly in the past as one of have expected from a chemical warfare attack. In fact, the symptoms of the victims fit perfectly with ethylene oxide inhalation, much more so than the symptoms and effects on first responders, etc., do with sarin.
    Here is what the US Defence Intelligence Agency said about the fuel air explosive: “Since the most common [Fuel Air Explosive] fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.”
    Finally, Ethylene Oxide, commonly used in fuel air explosives, can be deadly if inhaled in high enough concentrations and if inhaled can cause muscle twitching, flushing, headache, diminished hearing, acidosis, vomiting, dizziness, and transient loss of consciousness. It can irritate the skin but is not deadly to the touch. It is much less deadly than sarin or other common weaponized chemical weapons.”

  • DonM says:

    Celeb, I agree entirely with the notion that “doing nothing” will be an unmitigated disaster. It makes the statement across the world that using WMDs are not going to bare consequence.
    In fact I believe the Iranians have pushed the Syrians to do this, pledging something to balance any harm from the West resulting. The Iranians are getting closer and closer to show down time, so it is not unreasonable to expect they want some preliminary testing of will. The UK has fallen flat already.
    The response needs to be sizable, such as a majority attrition of Syrian Air Defense AND taking out a half their operational Air Force and Helos. Blow up a few Palaces too. Then leave with the warning that if they do it again the rest of their air assets go, and we start in on armor and command and control – to include the highest level of command.

  • DonM says:

    Two other points;
    1) I don’t think it is important to prove the order came from the top, just proving the regime did it is enough for me. They have denied their involvement and are covering for the responsible parties. That at the very least makes the top an accessory after the fact. Further, having the smoking gun on the most secret high-level communication within the regime is nearly impossible and as such requiring that before we proceed is a red herring to forestall attack.
    2) The Kurds in the North East are likely well supplied from the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Also, the allegiance of the Kurdish fighting groups in Syria needs to be vetted one by one, as recent encounters they had with Al Qaeda where PKK elements. Not who we want to be in league with. Lastly, the Kurds in Syria are largely sitting out the conflict against the Assad regime. So what is the point in arming them.

  • Celtiberian says:

    What do you think of this report from journalist Dale Galvak?
    “Syrians in Ghouta claim saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attack”
    //www.mintpressnews.com/witnesses-of-gas-attack-say-saudis-supplied-rebels-with-chemical-weapons/168135/
    She is a reputed journalist who works for AP, Times of Israel, among others.
    She is in Ghouta area (where alleged CW took place) interviewing rebels and local people, and she has found some disturbing tales among rebels:
    Some locals, including a rebel commander, point to CW supplied by Saudi intelligence services to Al-Nusrah. This CW was stored in the tunnels rebel use to store weapons in Ghouta. CW may have been manipulated in a wrong way by inexperienced handlers leading to an explosion and the delivery of CW in the neighborhood.

  • NL says:

    “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”
    Winston Churchill

  • AMac says:

    Gregory Cochran is also skeptical about the source of the chemicals released in the Damascus suburbs. He points to the U.S. mustard gas stocks that were disseminated in Bari harbor, Italy in 1943, when the ship carrying them was blown up by a Luftwaffe air raid.

  • Evan says:

    Whats so interesting about the reports from rebels coming out of Ghouta, along with doctors, civilians etc. is that it matches up pretty neatly with what the Regime said. I can’t find the source to quote, but I saw it on LWJ. It was a link to a news outlet in Syria that supports Assads’ regime. It was saying that about a dozen regime soldiers had died, suffocated actually, after finding “tunnels with chem weapons or supplies with Saudi writing on them.”
    It’s not hard to imagine regime bombardment unintentionally setting off chemical weapons that weren’t stored properly in the first place, by a regime artillery assault. Or the Nusra front waiting for a regime assault to use as cover to deploy chem weapons. What does the regime have to gain by attacking a suburb of the Capitol city with chemical weapons while UN inspectors are in the country? What does the opposition have to gain?
    I’m not trying to redeem BA or his Alawite killing machine, but to rush into conflict is folly. To attack with no meaning is folly. To attack without clear conviction is wrong.

  • AMac says:

    Blogger hbd_chick has posted a fair-use extract of an analysis piece by Gary Brecher (“War Nerd”), “Little Kerry and the Three Bad Options.”
    It includes a depressing but likely correct scenario for the conclusion of the Syrian civil war.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis