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Syria, Intelligence, and the Reasons for War

Intelligence reports suggest that the Syrian government attacked the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons on Aug. 21. 2013. (Photo: dailyrecord.co.uk)

Intelligence reports suggest that the Syrian government attacked the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons on Aug. 21. 2013. (Photo: dailyrecord.co.uk)

Discussions of possible intervention in Syria, like the run-up to the Iraq War, have focused on the nature of the available intelligence. The intelligence task in Syria is fundamentally different from the one in Iraq—and actually much easier—and getting the facts right is certainly worth the effort. Still, the emphasis on intelligence is unusual in debates about war; people usually know, or think they know, what the basic facts are. In the end, it is important to remember that the intelligence per se does not really answer the question of whether the country should go to war.

In Iraq the task put to intelligence agencies was to determine whether the regime really had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that it denied having but might have been successfully hiding. In Syria the task is to verify the presence of weapons that are being actively and openly used. That is inherently easier to do. In both cases, the regime allowed U.N. inspectors to enter the country, offering a valuable supplement to national intelligence means. In Iraq, although the inspectors had found nothing and were still looking, the Bush administration advised them to leave before hostilities began. In Syria, after an initial bout of hastiness, President Obama may be willing to hear what the inspectors have to say before taking action. (The mandate of the U.N. inspection team is to analyze and verify the use of chemical weapons, not to determine who was responsible for using them — that being Assad’s condition for letting them in. Yet technical details about the composition, quantity, and employment of the weapons could provide useful information for making that determination.)

In the case of Iraq, no one has ever been able to pinpoint the moment when a formal decision to go to war was made by the administration. It seems to have formed as an underlying assumption at an early point, and then the momentum carried it through. In July 2002 the chief of British intelligence reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” in Washington. Even before that, in the 1990s, many of President Bush’s future aides, although outside government at the time, were advocating “a strategy for removing Saddam’s regime from power.” Clearly, in Iraq the intelligence served a subordinate role supporting a predetermined policy decision. The only real question is how consciously the decision makers were doing this.

In Syria the debate focuses primarily on an alleged chemical-weapon attack by the regime against rebels in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, 2013. While the official intelligence assessments remain classified, brief summaries have been issued by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The U.S. report assesses “with high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out the chemical attack. This assessment relies on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence and open-source reporting, including thousands of spontaneous social-media reports from 12 different locations in the Damascus area. It asserts that only the regime, not the rebels, had the technical capacity to carry out a coordinated attack on such a scale. It even tells of evidence of three days of preparation by Syria’s chemical-weapons personnel. (This assertion has brought complaints that the U.S. government should have warned the rebels. It would have been difficult to construct a useful warning without knowing where and when the attack would come, although if warned, the rebels might have been able to attack the preparation site. The report does not specify when the Intelligence Community determined that the observed activities constituted the preparations for a chemical attack.)

The British report is briefer and less detailed than the U.S. report. Also, it refers to “at least 350 fatalities,” whereas the U.S. report determines that there were 1,429. The French intelligence report notes that France and its “principal partners” have followed the Syrian chemical weapons program—one of the world’s largest—for many years. It gives much more detail about the nature of the Syrian chemical arsenal and the chain of command. It also claims that the French authorities have obtained biomedical, environmental, and material samples from two smaller attacks in April 2013 that have confirmed the use of sarin at that time. The report further notes that the Syrians have experimented with using smaller amounts of toxins for tactical purposes. The French seem to have little direct evidence about the August 21 attack itself other than that available from open sources, but they have conducted their own technical analyses of those. The report estimates at least 281 deaths on August 21 based solely on a systematic review of videos but notes that others, using different methods, have produced higher estimates that the French find plausible. The French report agrees with the others that the opposition was not capable of carrying out such a coordinated attack with chemical weapons.

In addition to government intelligence, the French-based humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) reported on Aug. 24, 2013, that 3,600 Syrians with apparent neurotoxic symptoms had flooded into three area hospitals in a three-hour period following the alleged attack. Doctors Without Borders, which has ties to the hospitals in question but was not directly present, has called for further investigation to determine the exact nature and origins of the toxins. Just today another humanitarian organization, Human Rights Watch, concurred on the probable responsibility of the Syrian regime based on witness accounts, analysis of rocket fragments, and medical reports. The expected report from the U.N. inspectors may confirm or disprove some technical details about the attack. If confirmatory, the organization’s status as a disinterested party would further strengthen the assessment.

The presentation of the intelligence so far is not entirely without problems. Some have complained that the government has not presented the kind of direct evidence that would permit outside experts to verify its conclusions. President Obama may choose to release more, but the intelligence agencies are likely to oppose it. They are legally prohibited from disclosing their sources and methods and are generally loath to reveal how much they know. (Often they take this habit a bit far. The U.S. intelligence report cites what is obviously the public statement by Doctors Without Borders, but it refers to the group only as “a highly credible international humanitarian organization.” The French report cites the group by name.)

In a further shortcoming, the administration has admitted that it does not know precisely who ordered the attack. According to one information leak, U.S. intelligence intercepted a telephone call between a Syrian defense ministry official and a leader of the chemical-weapons unit. The call appears to confirm that the Syrian unit carried out the attack but suggests that the defense ministry, or at least this official, might not have known about it in advance. According to the French intelligence report, only Assad and a few of the most influential members of his clan can order a chemical attack and the order goes directly to the chemical-weapons unit, but the army staff, in parallel, is supposed to determine the targets, the weapons, and the toxins to be used. While chaos is common in war, it would be good to have an explanation of this apparent puzzle.

Overall, it appears that the Syrian regime, or someone in the regime, probably is responsible for the attack of August 21. Politically, it would be a good idea to wait for the U.N. inspectors to issue their report. The intelligence, however—even if it is true—does not necessarily tell us what we must do. One of the problems of the Iraq case is that the sheer sloppiness of the WMD intelligence distracts from the point that it would not have necessitated a decision for war if it had been true. The little-scrutinized assumption that Saddam Hussein would have given nuclear weapons or other WMD to terrorists he did not control (terrorists who, in fact, were out to get him) was ludicrous. Similarly, the Assads of Syria, father and son, have had possession of chemical weapons for more than 30 years yet have not managed to find the time to hand any over to terrorist organizations.

A decision for war requires further evaluation beyond the determination of basic intelligence facts: What are our goals? How achievable are those goals? How much are we willing to pay for them? What are the likely consequences of action, and of inaction? It is inherently difficult. President Obama’s seemingly muddled position on Syria is less a reflection of his personality than a reflection of the muddled reality. The potential outcomes that he really must try to avoid include: getting sucked into a new, pointless Middle Eastern war; new precedents for the use of chemical weapons; Assad losing control of his chemical weapons; Assad winning; Islamist rebels winning; Assad losing followed by civil war among rival rebel groups; and, of course, general chaos in the Middle East. As much as pundits criticize him, no one has come up with a more viable solution than Obama’s vaguely pressed idea of forcing the Assad regime into a negotiated power transfer. The new, unexpected possibility of a negotiated chemical disarmament by Syria — arising from a quick Russian reaction to an apparently offhand remark by Secretary Kerry — while not a solution to the crisis in itself, is the most positive prospect on the near-term horizon and could provide the time needed to help us avoid other disastrous possibilities.