President Barack Obama and administration officials last month vigorously argued for punitive, targeted U.S. military strikes against Syria, basing their case in part on an intelligence assessment that the administration said provided compelling evidence that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on contested and rebel-controlled areas in the Damascus suburbs.
In an Aug. 31 address, Obama said the attack “risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” Obama also announced that he would seek authorization from Congress for the U.S. action, a step that he said is not legally required.
That decision pushes back the timetable for the strikes beyond what many observers were expecting, but Obama said the ability of U.S. forces “to execute this mission is not time sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.” The action will be “against Syrian regime targets” and “designed to be limited in duration and scope,” he said.
The announcement came two days after the British Parliament voted against military action in spite of strong support for it by Prime Minister David Cameron. The previous day, Aug. 28, a British proposal to obtain UN Security Council support for military action in Syria foundered on objections from Russia, Syria’s strongest ally on the council, and China, according to accounts of a closed-door meeting of the council’s five permanent members.
A summary of the U.S. intelligence assessment said the U.S. government has “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21. “High confidence” is “the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,” said the summary, which the White House released Aug. 30. It added, “We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”
The summary said a “preliminary” U.S. assessment had tallied 1,429 deaths from the Aug. 21 attack, including at least 426 children. A British intelligence document issued earlier in the week said there were “at least 350 fatalities.”
According to the U.S. intelligence summary, the Syrian government used a nerve agent in the attack. On Sept. 1, Secretary of State John Kerry, citing analysis conducted since the issuance of the document, said the agent was sarin.
The summary described preparations by “Syrian chemical weapons personnel” in the three days prior to the attack and said that afterward the United States had “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.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Aug. 31 that “the alleged call made by a Syrian officer after the alleged attack is too ridiculous to be discussed.” Overall, the U.S. evidence, which Kerry presented in an Aug. 30 speech, is “based on old stories which were published by terrorists over a week ago and are full of fabrication and lies,” the news agency said.
The team from the United Nations arrived in Syria on Aug. 18, after several months of negotiations between representatives of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the specifics of the team’s access to sites of earlier alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government and rebels. But after the Aug. 21 attack took place, the team shifted its focus to sites connected with that event and left the country Aug. 31, the day before its permission to stay in the country expired. At a press conference later that day, Ban spokesman Martin Nesirky said the team had “given a very clear undertaking to the Syrian authorities that it will return” to investigate “all the pending allegations” of chemical weapons use.
The team, which is led by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström and includes nine experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and three from the World Health Organization, flew to The Hague, the site of OPCW headquarters. The evidence collected by the UN team, which includes environmental and biological samples, now is to undergo laboratory analysis. That process “may take up to three weeks,” the OPCW said in an Aug. 31 press release, adding that “every effort will be made to expedite this process.”
The OPCW is the organization charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. Syria is one of seven countries that are not party to the CWC. Under a 1987 UN General Assembly resolution and language in the convention, the UN secretary-general has the authority to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use involving CWC nonparties.
In his Aug. 31 address, Obama said he was “confident in the case our government has made without waiting” for the UN team to complete its analysis. As administration officials have noted, the mandate of the UN team is to determine whether chemical weapons were used and not who used them. Therefore, Kerry said in his Aug. 30 remarks, “[b]y the definition of their own mandate, the UN can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you this afternoon or that we don’t already know.”
But Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist and former member of the UN Special Commission that was charged with verifying Iraq’s destruction of its chemical and other weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said in a Sept. 1 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “the role of the UN team is more important than ever[,] whatever its findings.”
The team could provide critical information on the means of delivery for any chemical agents, he said. “If there were bombs and rockets of whatever origin used in attacks, it is reasonable to believe that there almost certainly will be remnants of the weapons like shards, splinters, craters with degradation products from explosives and chemicals and, if the inspectors are really lucky, duds,” he wrote.
If the rockets turn out to be Iranian or Russian, that would implicate the Assad regime, he said. But if they are “homemade,” that would be a strong indication that they came from the rebels, and “Assad probably would be off the hook,” he said.
The intelligence summary was skeptical of the possibility that the rebels were responsible for the attack. In one example of the basis for that conclusion, the summary said that “[s]atellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred.” Those neighborhoods are controlled by the rebels or are contested, Kerry said in his speech.
Overall, Zilinskas said, the intelligence summary is not a full assessment because it does not include information on “sample collections, chain of custody, methods of analysis, or results of analysis by reference laboratories.”