WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last week, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, FP has learned. And that is the major reason why U.S. officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.
But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told FP. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”
Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military’s rationale for launching the strike — if it had a rationale at all. Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government. Whatever the reason, the attack has triggered worldwide outrage, and put the Obama administration on the brink of launching a strike of its own in Syria. “We don’t know exactly why it happened,” the intelligence official added. “We just know it was pretty [expletive] stupid.”
U.S. intelligence analysts are certain that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 — the captured phone calls, combined with local doctors’ accounts and video documentation of the tragedy — are considered proof positive. That is why the U.S. government, from the president on down, has been unequivocal in its declarations that the Syrian military gassed thousands of civilians in the East Ghouta region.
However, U.S. spy services still have not acquired the evidence traditionally considered to be the gold standard in chemical weapons cases: soil, blood and other environmental samples that test positive for reactions with nerve agent. That’s the kind of proof that the U.S. and its allies processed from earlier, small-scale attacks that the White House described in equivocal tones, and declined to muster a military response to in retaliation.
There is an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about whether to strike Assad immediately — or whether to allow United Nations inspectors to try to collect that proof before the bombing begins. This week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the work of that team “redundant … because it is clearly established already that chemical weapons have been used on a significant scale.”
But within the intelligence community, at least, “there’s an interest in letting the U.N. piece run its course,” the official said. “It puts the period on the end of the sentence.”
When news about the Ghouta incident first trickled out, there were questions about whether or not a chemical agent was to blame for the massacre. But when weapons experts and U.S. intelligence analysts began reviewing the dozens of videos and pictures allegedly taken from the scene of the attacks, they quickly concluded that a nerve gas, such as sarin, had been used there. The videos showed young victims who were barely able to breathe and, in some cases, twitching. Close-up photos revealed that their pupils were severely constricted. Doctors and nurses who say they treated the victims reported that they later became short of breath as well. Eyewitnesses talk of young children so confused, they couldn’t even indentify their own parents. All of these are classic signs of exposure to a nerve agent like sarin, the Assad regime’s chemical weapon of choice.
Making the case even more conclusive were the images of the missiles that supposedly delivered the deadly attacks. If they were carrying conventional warheads, they would have likely been all but destroyed as they detonated. But several missiles in East Ghouta were found largely intact. “Why is there so much rocket left? There shouldn’t be so much rocket left,” the intelligence official told FP. The answer, the official and his colleagues concluded, was that the weapon was filled with nerve agent, not a conventional explosive.
In the days after the attacks, there was a great deal of public discussion about which side in Syria’s horrific civil war actually launched the strike. Allies of the Assad regime, like Iran and Russia, pointed the finger at the opposition. The intercepted communications told a different story — one in which the Syrian government was clearly to blame.
The official White House line is that the president is still considering his options for Syria. But all of Washington is talking about a punitive strike on the Assad government in terms of when, not if. Even some congressional doves have said they’re now at least open to the possibility of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. Images of dead children, neatly stacked in rows, have a way of changing minds.
“It’s horrible, it’s stupid,” the intelligence official said about the East Ghouta attack by the Syrian military. “Whatever happens in the next few days — they get what they deserve.”
Schactman is executive editor, news, at Foreign Policy.
© 2013, Foreign Policy