Syria: the view from US intelligence

The United States has now published has now published a declassified summary of its intelligence assessment relating to the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21.

Like the British intelligence report issued a day earlier, it firmly dismisses the idea that rebels could have carried out the attacks: 

  • "We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons."

  • "We have seen no indication that the opposition has carried out a large-scale, coordinated rocket and artillery attack like the one that occurred on August 21."

The most interesting part of the American report, though, is that the US appears to have substantial information about the attacks themselves:

"Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of 'Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. 

"On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilisation of gas masks. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.

"Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21. Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, 'Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu'addamiyah.

"This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack ...

"We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21. We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence. 

"On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighbourhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the 24 hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days. We continued to see indications of sustained shelling in the neighbourhoods up until the morning of August 26."

The report suggests a military context which might explain why the regime resorted to chemical weapons in this area at the time. It says the regime has used on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs. 

"We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition.

"The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighbourhoods of opposition elements, including neighbourhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime's frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21."

All this is described in the report as a "high confidence" assessment which is "the strongest position that the US Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation" and, if true, considerably reinforces the case against the Assad regime.

The difficulty, of course, is that we (the public) don't have access to the original intelligence data and can't make a judgment on the quality of the intelligence sources, so we have to take a lot on trust. However, some of the classified information is being provided to members of Congress who – as secretary of state John Kerry pointed out yesterday – are representatives of the American people. 

There are often good reasons for such secrecy – you don't necessarily want the other side to find out exactly how much you know or how you found out – but that can also provide cover for abuse, as happened with Iraq. Inevitably there will be people who suspect public opinion is being manipulated and no one can be 100% sure that it is not.

However, it is difficult to see why, on this occasion, the Obama administration would want to hype it up. Obama is not Bush. Bush was looking for reasons to launch a war in Iraq and was surrounded by lots of others egging him on. That is not the case at all with Obama and Syria. All along, he has been reluctant to get directly involved in Syria militarily. All the signs indicate that he would much prefer not to have the Syrian chemical weapons file on his desk awaiting his formal decision.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 31 August 2013