Journal Essay

Chemical Attacks in Syria: How U.S. Intel Went Wrong

Gareth Porter

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Dr. Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian, the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014). Porter has covered U.S. national-security issues for the Rome-based Inter Press Service since 2004. He is the 2012 recipient of the Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, awarded by the Gellhorn Trust in the UK in honor of American journalist Martha Gellhorn. His previous book was Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005).

The rockets that landed in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013 — immediately regarded by the Obama administration and the news media as a nerve-gas attack — brought the United States to the brink of war with the Assad regime. President Barack Obama stepped back from launching cruise missiles only at the very last moment, August 30, according to the most detailed account of the episode.1

The presumption that the Syrian government had crossed Obama's "red line" against the use of chemical weapons was already full-blown: In mid-June 2013, the administration had announced an intelligence assessment affirming that the regime had used chemical weapons, including Sarin, several times over the previous year. This assessment was crucial in establishing a political climate within and outside the Obama administration that made it very difficult for the president to avoid treating the claims of a Sarin attack in August as a fact. But it was an allegation, the truth of which still had to be established.

A review of what is known about the June assessment and the alleged Sarin attacks shows that it was a major intelligence failure on the order of the Iraq WMD error. It failed to reflect accurately the evidence the administration said supported the overall conclusion. Moreover, it ignored substantial evidence indicating that the incidents in question did not involve Sarin or anything else that the United States recognized as a banned chemical weapon. Finally, the evidence of responsibility for the alleged Sarin attacks did not confirm the accusation that they were carried out by the Syrian government.

THE APRIL 2013 ASSESSMENT

The June 2013 intelligence assessment was preceded six weeks earlier by an intelligence assessment that appeared, on the surface at least, to endorse the view that Syria had used chemical weapons. However, it stopped short of doing so. The April 2013 assessment was carried out in the context of new international pressures on the Obama administration to accuse the Assad regime of chemical-weapons attacks. Letters from the British and French governments to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in mid-March had claimed that evidence supported the opposition charge that nerve agents had been used in attacks near Aleppo, Homs and possibly the Damascus suburbs. It cited what the two governments said was conclusive evidence from soil samples and interviews with witnesses.2 U.S. allies, including those in the Middle East, were reportedly "irked" by the failure of the Obama administration to do more to assist the armed opposition to the Assad regime.3

Far from being disinterested parties on the questions at issue, however, the British and French governments were exploiting opposition charges of Sarin use to bolster their joint campaign to get the European Union to end its embargo on providing weapons to either side in the Syrian war.4 In mid-March, when the British and French launched their push to end the arms embargo — but before either government was claiming to have evidence of chemical-weapons use — French President François Hollande declared, "We must go further" to assist the Syrian rebels against the regime, because of "some potential threats as to the use of chemical weapons."5

In any case, the evidence that the two countries claimed to have was clearly inconclusive regarding what was used in the attacks and who was responsible. The soil samples did not prove that the substance was Sarin or another nerve gas. The Times reported on April 13 that the British Ministry of Defence research facility in Porton Down had found traces of what it called "some kind of chemical weapon" in the soil samples, which were said to have come from Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, the target of an alleged chemical-weapon attack on March 13. The researchers had determined that the chemical used in the attack wasn't Sarin, though they had been unable to identity it precisely, according to The Times.6

Obama administration officials further noted that it had not been established who had handled the samples before a laboratory had analyzed them. The Syrian government had immediately called for a UN investigation of what it claimed was a Sarin attack on the government-controlled enclave of Khan al-Assal, suggesting that it was carried out by opposition forces.7 But opposition commanders in the area had argued both that a government chemical-led shell had missed its target and that the government had deliberately attacked its own people to make the opposition look guilty. And the Obama administration, apparently recognizing that its position on the incident could not be separated from its need to reassure its allies on U.S. Syrian policy, had immediately rejected any possibility that the opposition could have carried out the attack on Khan al-Assal.8

On April 13, British Foreign Minister William Hague claimed to have "very strong evidence" that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. However, Hague made a damaging admission to Parliament: improvised chemical weapons may have been used by both sides — "by the regime to show that the opposition are using chemical weapons, and by the opposition to show that the regime is using them."9

Despite political pressure from U.S. allies for more aggressive U.S. military assistance to the opposition, the Obama administration was still guarding its freedom of action on the issue of intervening in the war. As the foreign ministers of the core group of the "Friends of Syria" (the United States and 11 other states supporting the opposition) met in Istanbul on April 20, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official explained to a journalist the main issue at the meeting: the Obama administration's continued resistance to the proposal from the two European governments and the Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) to step up the flow of arms to the opposition.10

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