The U.S. Government has released an "Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons," which argues that the Syrian regime was responsible for a devastating chemical weapons attack on civilians. The statement is presented as justification for U.S. military intervention in Syria, as punishment or deterrent against Syria for violating the international norm prohibiting use of chemical weapons.
This document requires our closest attention. Analysis, by this writer and others, of the famous speech by Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq identified many holes and weaknesses later confirmed as faulty intelligence and distorted analysis. The results in Iraq were disastrous for the Iraqi people and for international security in fostering far greater ethnic and sectarian tension in the Middle East and the unprecedented proliferation terrorist networks in the region and beyond. Given this hard lesson, an international spotlight has rightly been brought on this document.
The following is a point-by-point response to the document’s claim that President Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on 21 August 2013. This analysis does not, and cannot from existing evidence, conclude that the Syrian regime did not deliberately deploy chemical weapons on this or other occasions. It does conclude that the U.S. Government Assessment has not made the case for this claim, and certainly not to the point of justifying its own unilateral intervention (which, in any case, would clearly violate the United Nations Charter).
The full text document is extracted here for the main points.
The Syrian regime maintains a stockpile of numerous chemical agents, including mustard, sarin, and VX and has thousands of munitions that can be used to deliver chemical warfare agents. This is true, but the regime is not the only source of these agents. We assess with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs. This assessment is based on multiple streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin.
The evidence supporting these assessments is the our entire concern here. In the 2003 UN speech by Colin Powell, he made repeated references to intelligence sources that turned out to be obviously fake, wrong or distorted. Verifiability of this intelligence, including the channels through it was obtained, must be shared in order to have credibility. This is not done.
We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons.
No evidence is provided for this short statement, although rebel use of chemical weapons has been asserted by Syrian officials and the Russian government and at least deserves some explanation. The UN inspection team was brought in to examine cases of chemical weapons use in incidents where the Syrian government asserted that its own forces had come under such attacks. On what basis is this sweeping US assessment made, prior to independent studies?
The Syrian regime has the types of munitions that we assess were used to carry out the attack on August 21, and has the ability to strike simultaneously in multiple locations.
The rockets videoed near the sites of apparent other chemical attacks in Syria were of unique designs that have not been seen before. They have not been associated with any side’s regular arsenal. Some suspicious aspects of the rockets filmed near alleged attacks are evident: for example, less damage to the rockets than would be expected if they had been impacted the ground at full speed.
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.
This assessment still has no evidence to support it. "We assess" and "we judge" is not enough.
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 neighborhoods of opposition elements, including neighborhoods 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.
That the US intelligence community can offer no more than speculation to explain the sudden use of these weapons ("may have") indicates that "we assess" In this paragraph equates with "we guess". Many other assessments of regime motivations have found stronger prima facie arguments why the Assad regime would be highly averse to use chemical weapons, especially on such a scale (which could not be covered up), when a UN chemical weapons inspection team is actually in the country and international attention is focused on this very question.
We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel – including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC – were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.
Since the Syrian government has a formal policy not to use chemical weapons, it is not clear who these "chemical weapons personnel" are. Certainly, having chemical weapon stockpiles, the regime has scientists and engineers handling and monitoring them. But this phrasing suggests field personnel – people trained and tasked to deploy chemical weapons in the field. How are such people identified in the field? Who identified them? Again, the source of this intelligence and the evidence itself must be shared in order to be assessed by the public. The track record of false and misleading assessments driving US foreign policy in Iraq and Libya over the past decade, sometimes found to come from partisans who were deliberately providing biased or inaccurate information, does not allow the public to accept this level of vagueness regarding this crucial question.
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.
Proximity to the attack is no explanation. Earlier instances of suspected chemical weapons attacks were not in this area.
On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks.
Three problems here. First, what "Syrian regime element"? And is this "element" under the full control of the Presidency?
Second, the conclusion proposed by the U.S. Government is that having anti-chemical weapon equipment like gas masks signifies an offensive posture – intention to use such weapons. As reporters and photographers have been documenting for some time, rebels and activists also have gas masks: see here (from a week ago), here (from an article posted on 14 June), and here (from 27 May). Some of these reports, drawing from opposition sources, suggest that the regime is using chemical weapons, but if the rebels were using chemical weapons, as others have alleged, this could explain the presence of gas masks by regime forces (assuming they were using them, as no hard evidence is offered of this).Gas masks and atropine (anti-Sarin) syringes have also been reported to have been found among rebel supplies, yet this is not being argued to represent the rebels’ own preparation for using a chemical weapon but their preparation for defense against it. The Syrian government has claimed that its own troops have been affected by chemical weapons deployed by the opposition. While this claim also is unsubstantiated, it would make their use of gas masks, and indeed use by either side, insufficient evidence in itself of intent by either side to deploy such weapons. In sum, the presence of gas masks in the area is not enough to assume any side’s plans to use chemical weapons.
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.
This is particularly insufficient, as we must assume that he US government’s principal sources of intelligence in the Syrian battlefield are from the opposition’s side. It is highly unlikely that pro-rebel intelligence sources would communication to the US its own plans to use chemical weapons, particularly if the plan was to make them look like a Syrian military operation. Independent sources are mandatory here.
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.
It is unexplained why a chemical weapon rocket attack would not be reported until 90 minutes later. Oral testimony from the area confirmed that people heard the impact and smelled a noxious odor seconds later. Why is this satellite data being associated with the gas attack an hour and half later?
Local social media reports of a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs began at 2:30 a.m. local time on August 21. Within the next four hours there were thousands of social media reports on this attack from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area. Multiple accounts described chemical-filled rockets impacting opposition-controlled areas.
That there was a chemical weapons attack is not in dispute, so the rest of this section is not addressed here. However, that such a wide-spread attack could not possibly escape public exposure and scandal, and would therefore be highly detrimental to the regime at this sensitive juncture regarding international intervention, is reinforced by the details provided here. This argues against a calculated decision by the Assad presidency to use such weapons on this scale at this sensitive time.
We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were writing of and directed the attack on August 21.
What "past Syrian practice" involving chemical weapons? No such "past practice" is documented here.
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 U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations.
This is the US statement’s only suggestion that hard evidence exists linking the regime to the attack and is therefore the sole basis on which US policy is presently resting. The "communications involving a senior official" must therefore be shared in much greater detail. Who is this senior official? What exactly did he or she say? Several questions are pressing here: the confidence of this intercepted communication (did it really happen, who sent it, what exactly was said); and what it might imply for fissures within the regime, which would inform an assessment of regime culpability and an appropriate international response.
At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods up until the morning of August 26.
Again we have reference to "Syrian chemical weapons personnel", whom we have no other information to know exist as deployed field operatives. That the artillery barrage increased is no evidence at all: if the rebels launched this attack as a false flag operation, then the barrage would be the perfect cover.
To conclude, there is a substantial body of information that implicates the Syrian government’s responsibility in the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21.As indicated, there is additional intelligence that remains classified because of sources and methods concerns that is being provided to Congress and international partners.
This paragraph replicates the Powell Speech in concluding substantial evidence from unverified sources, coincidences and dubious claims.
A second question must arise in this scenario. In the second paragraph under "Background", the US statement affirms that President Assad is responsible for everything done by his armed forces:
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) – which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense – manages Syria’s chemical weapons program.
This is legally true, but Syria is not in a normal condition presently. Defections from the armed forces have brought many officers to the rebel side or into exile. While the regime has generally retained control of the state’s armed forces, it cannot be assumed with confidence that legal responsibility is presently translating into full command and control. Confirming Syrian state responsibility, even for an attack organized by an "element" within the regime, therefore requires far more information that is presented here.
That unilateral action by the United States in this instance is illegal, in violating the United Nations Charter provisions regarding collective security and international norms prohibiting aggression, is a separate but hardly irrelevant question. It should not be the obligation of the international community hastily to analyze partial information and opaque claims of fragmentary, unclear and mostly circumstantial evidence to deter aggression by a single state, even one acting aggressively in the name of international security, the defense of international norms and possibly the ‘responsibility to protect’ (although this is not spelled out). Such behavior has led to wars in the past and is expressly prohibited by the UN Charter precisely because it is inherently destabilizing to international order. The ‘responsibility to protect’ is formulated in international law as a collective obligation, not a justification for unilateral aggression by a single great power. It is highly ironic that this most important norm for international security, the prohibition on aggression, is being baldly violated in the name of defending another one, the prohibition on chemical weapons. As new information has freshly confirmed that the U.S. and British governments apparently endorsed use of chemical weapons on the Iraq-Iran battlefield, the contradiction is both legally and morally untenable.
However, analysis here considers only whether the U.S. Government has made a case that the Syrian regime is responsible for an appalling chemical weapons attack on civilians. It is concluded here that the U.S. has failed in this effort.
Virginia Tilley is a scholar of ethnic and racial conflict, an analyst of Middle East politics and author of two books and many articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.