US releases intelligence on Syria chemical attack: 5 takeaways

US report released Friday asserts an Aug. 21 attack in Syria involved chemical weapons – and concludes confidence is 'high' that the Assad regime, not Syrian rebels, is responsible. It also offers answers on what, when, where, and why.

Pete Souza/The White House/AP
President Barack Obama meets with his national security staff to discuss the situation in Syria, in the Situation Room of the White House, Friday, in Washington, including from left national security adviser Susan Rice; Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden.

The US government assesses with “high confidence” that the Syrian government turned chemical weapons on its own citizens in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, according to a long-awaited declassified US intelligence assessment.

That judgment is based on reports from human informants, intercepted communications, and overhead spy photos, says the terse four-page document. A total of 1,429 people, including 426 children, were killed in an attack that most likely involved nerve gas, says US intelligence.

“Our high confidence assessment [of what happened] is the strongest position that the US Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,” says the document.

US officials have been promising all week that the administration would release a scrubbed intelligence analysis of the Syrian incident. The basic conclusions of the report, released Friday, closely follow statements the White House has been making for days.

In other words, it concludes that the tragic event was a chemical weapons strike, that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible, and that there is no way Syrian rebels could have carried it out, as Mr. Assad claims.

That said, details of the report raised some interesting questions while shedding light on exactly what occurred that tragic day:

How long has this been going on? For one thing, the intelligence paper confirms that the US believes Assad had already crossed Mr. Obama’s “red line” prior to Aug. 21.

“We assess with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs,” says the paper.

Experts outside government have charged that it is possible Assad has used chemicals as many as 14 times in the ongoing civil war. This may have led the Syrian leader to believe he could use them with impunity, “red line” or no.

What was the point of using such weapons? The US intelligence document says Assad has used chemical weapons in the past primarily to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. The Syrian military sees nerve gas as just one more weapon, and not something uniquely horrible, in this assessment.

That said, the Assad regime has been unable to oust pockets of resistance in the Damascus suburbs, from whence rebels have continued to attack the capital city. That failure may have led to the larger, more deadly chemical strike.

“We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21,” says the US document.

A senior US official briefing reporters after the paper’s release added that it is possible the regime wanted to clear the area and free up military resources for a new push to clear rebel-dominated areas in Aleppo, in Syria’s north.

Did the US see it coming? Beginning three days before the attack, the US intelligence community was collecting streams of information pointing to preparations for a chemical weapons advance, according to the document.

Known Syrian chemical weapons personnel were seen operating in a Damascus suburb from Aug. 18 until the early hours of Aug. 21, “near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” says the report.

On Aug. 21, a regime element “prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks,” says the report.

The paper does not say the US understood the importance of this intelligence at the time. It doesn’t say whether the US received these tips contemporaneously, or after the fact.

How was the attack carried out? The report notes that the US did not detect aircraft activity or missile launches in the area of the attack at the time it occurred.

That “leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack,” says the document.

Rockets are smaller-diameter than missiles and much shorter-range, making them easier to conceal and more mobile than even truck-carried Scud missiles.

How did Syrian officials react on the phone? US officials had cautioned that the intelligence report would not reference intercepted communications. However, near the end it did so, saying only that the US intercepted a phone call “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 UN inspectors obtaining evidence.”

The US report did not further characterize the mood of the senior official in question. However, a report in Foreign Policy magazine early this week said that in the wake of the deadly chemical attack a Syrian Ministry of Defense official exchanged “panicked” phone calls with the leader of a Syrian Army chemical weapons unit.

The ministry official wanted some answers about what had happened in the nerve agent strike, wrote Foreign Policy’s Noah Shachtman. The implication of his mood was that the chemical unit had acted on its own, or perhaps that the strike had proved deadlier than top officials anticipated.

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