If the arguments being presented by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for attacking Syria seem increasingly shrill and disjointed that might well be because a legitimate case cannot be made for going to war. The central argument—i.e., that punishing al-Assad will “change his calculus” and dissuade him from using chemical weapons against rebel forces embedded within the civilian population—relies on demonstrating that al-Assad has already done just that, a case that has not been credibly made thus far. Nor would a “shot across the bow” strike be likely to influence the thinking of a regime that theoretically might find itself with its back against the wall, willing to use all resources at hand to defeat a ruthless enemy. Still less does the argument that Washington must act lest the chemical weapons fall into the hands of terrorists and be used against American and other Western targets convince. Such a scenario is much more likely if the rebels, who undeniably include many extremists, are empowered through military action to such an extent that they might eventually triumph. If Washington wishes to prevent possible weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, it should be doing everything it can to support the Syrian government. Any scenario that involves attacking the very soldiers who are presumably guarding the chemical weapons is a recipe for disaster.
As has often been the case in other situations over the past 12 years, Washington has maneuvered itself into a new crisis because it is failing to see the Syrian situation in all its complexity, preferring simple solutions that do not involve any commitment or long-term strategic planning. One former intelligence colleague has called it “a very poorly defined problem” that will not be solved by lobbing a few Tomahawk cruise missiles towards Damascus. That is the issue precisely—failing to understand what the problem is frustrates any attempt to devise a reasonable solution.
It should be no secret by now that much of the U.S. intelligence community is troubled by the quality of the information being used to justify a new war in the Middle East. It should also surprise no one to learn that former and current intelligence officers network and share information. For what it’s worth, one circle that I connect with has been buzzing over the past week with a discussion of the intelligence produced by the administration to justify war. A preponderance of roughly ten to one of our correspondents believe that the administration’s case for military intervention is greatly flawed, judging by the intelligence that has so far been revealed to justify an attack. The several dissenters from that view agree that the administration argument as expressed in its brief “Government Assessment” is lacking in corroborative detail and is a poorly written political document that pretends to be an intelligence assessment. But they are not yet at the point where they can support any single one of the alternative explanations for what took place in Syria three weeks ago and are willing to give the White House the benefit of the doubt. Which is not intended to suggest that anyone thinks that attacking Syria is desirable, either from a political, military, or practical point of view.
Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has already explored many of the inconsistencies in the administration case from an intelligence point of view. Last week I signed on to a letter entitled “Is Syria a Trap?” sent to the president by a number of members of my intelligence-officer circle. The 12 signatories included former officers in the CIA, Army and Marine Corps, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI, NSA, and Foreign Service. Based on contributions that we had obtained through our contacts, which include a number of active-duty intelligence officers, we concluded that the admittedly fragmentary information that is currently available to us indicates that both British and American intelligence know that Bashar al-Assad did not carry out the chemical attack in Damascus on Aug. 21. Which, absent other information that is so far not forthcoming, means that the White House is either lying or cherry picking its evidence when it asserts that he did. The key finding relating to the nature of the attack is analysis that indicates that the chemical agents used were not military grade, suggesting instead that the incident was caused deliberately by the rebels using over-the-counter chemicals, certainly a lethal concoction but not equivalent to a chemical-weapons attack carried out by a military unit. The Russian government, in a report issued separately, has apparently reached the same conclusion regarding an alleged Sarin attack near Aleppo that Washington blamed on the Syrian government back in July.
There are other anomalies we mention in our letter that also have been noted by others, including the possibility that the attack was premeditated by the opposition and may have been part of a broader offensive on behalf of the rebels and their supporters, with prior planning involving Washington. The Syrian government’s alleged delivery system for the chemicals, reported to be rockets, has not been identified by credible witnesses or through remains that can be plausibly linked to the regime. Other physical evidence is contradictory, with the victims of the attack not demonstrating the symptoms of either Sarin gas or of military-grade chemicals, either of which would induce extreme vomiting and invariably be lethal. The White House’s confident assertion of 1,429 as the number of victims in the attack is also highly questionable, as it is at best based on evidence provided by the rebels. Médecins Sans Frontières, which was actually on the ground in Syria, reports a much lower victim count, and there is considerable evidence that the many of those afflicted suffered from treatable conditions. The organization also objected to the U.S., British, and French governments’ attempts to exploit the group’s reporting to blame the attack on al-Assad. One intelligence source claims that Washington and London have also determined, but not publicly revealed, that the photographic and video evidence that has been produced to support claims surrounding the attack was essentially fabricated, presumably by the rebels and possibly with the assistance of a foreign intelligence service.
President Obama will address the nation to make his case for war on Tuesday night. From a point of view of intelligence professionals, who would like to see actual unimpeachable evidence if military action is even to be considered, Obama should answer the following five questions:
- The Obama administration claims that it has conclusive evidence that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of a chemical weapon on Aug. 21 in Damascus. Recognizing that sources and methods must be protected, can the White House describe in more detail the nature of that intelligence? Does it derive from U.S. intelligence resources or is it second hand, extractive or derivative? How much of it is first hand and/or definitive in nature? To what extent can it be corroborated?
- There are press reports that indicate that critical Sigint intelligence relating to the attack was obtained from Israel and that it may have been “doctored” to make the case for al-Assad government involvement. If that is so and since Israel is not a disinterested party in the conflict, what type of information was obtained, has it been authenticated, otherwise vetted, or corroborated by U.S. intelligence, and is the information itself conclusive in nature or fragmentary and subject to interpretation and analysis?
- Cui bono? It has been widely noted that the Syrian government, hosting recently arrived U.N. weapons inspectors, had no good reason to stage a chemical weapons attack, quite the contrary. But the rebels would be highly motived to carry out such an attack and blame it on al-Assad. Given the fact that the rebels occupy the suburb of Damascus where the attack took place, does that mean that the reports received in Washington regarding what occurred are from largely insurgent sources and, if so, is the White House concerned that it might be receiving what amounts to deliberately fabricated information? What kind of independent sources does the intelligence community have on the incident? Are they tested and reliable?
- There are reports that the Saudis and possibly the Turks provided chemicals to the insurgents that could be used to make crude weapons. Other reports suggest that the chemicals might have been combined by accident. Is the White House prepared to address those allegations even if they undercut the case for going to war?
- It has been reported by the New York Times that Israel is supporting the rebels because it wants them to persevere against al-Assad and allow the civil war to continue indefinitely, i.e. “you need both teams to lose…Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking…” Has the White House sought to determine the possible Israeli role in encouraging or even enabling the continuation of the conflict?
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.