U.S. had intel on Syrian chemical strike before it was launched
American intelligence agencies had indications three days beforehand that the Syrian regime was poised to launch a lethal chemical attack that killed more than a thousand people and has set the stage for a possible U.S. military strike on Syria.
The disclosure – part of a larger U.S. intelligence briefing on Syria’s chemical attacks – raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions for the American government. First and foremost: What, if anything, did it do to notify the Syrian opposition of the pending attack?
In a call with reporters Friday afternoon, senior administration officials did not address whether this information was shared with rebel groups in advance of the attack. A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the information had been shared.
But at least some members of the Syrian opposition are already lashing out at the U.S. government for not acting ahead of time to prevent the worst chemical attack in a quarter-century. “If you knew, why did you take no action?” asked Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist and secure-communications expert who has recently relocated to the United States. He added that none of his contacts had any sort of prior warning about the nerve gas assault – although such an attack was always a constant fear.
Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition activist in the town of Douma, one of the towns hit in the Aug. 21 attack, said she had no early indication of a major chemical attack. “Even the moment (the attack hit), we thought it was as usual, limited and not strong,” she told Foreign Policy in an instant message. That only changed when “we started to hear about the number of injuries.”
“It’s unbelievable that they did nothing to warn people or try to stop the regime before the crime,” Zaitouneh added.
The U.S. intelligence community is now all but certain that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. And part of that certainty were the military’s signs of advance preparation for an attack.
“In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack,” said a U.S. intelligence report the Obama administration released Friday.
“Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21,” the report added. Satellites detected that the weapons were launched from territories held by the regime. They landed in rebel-controlled or contested neighborhoods.
The intelligence assessment is based on “a substantial body of information,” including satellite imagery, intercepted communications and social media reports from the scene of the attack.
“Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,” the report said. “We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”
There had been reports of chemical attacks before the Aug. 21 assault in Damascus. But it provided a wealth of new intelligence picked up by U.S. spy agencies that helped make the U.S. case for Syrian government culpability.
In releasing the intelligence report, the Obama administration sought to assure Americans that its conclusions were based on multiple verifiable sources, including public accounts, and that the intelligence community had not repeated the mistakes of 2003, when it incorrectly judged that Iraq possessed chemical weapons.
“We will not repeat that moment,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, emphasizing that the intelligence about the Syrian attacks had been vetted and reviewed.
In addition to U.S. satellite and signals intelligence, the report also relies on “thousands of social media reports” in the hours after the attack, noting they were sent from “at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area.” Kerry mentioned the volume of the reports, as well. Ninety minutes after the attack, “all hell broke loose in the social media,” Kerry said, noting that the reports conveyed images and video of victims of the attack, showing some of them dazed, twitching, foaming at the mouth or dead.
The report said U.S. intelligence “identified one hundred videos attributed to the attack, many of which show large numbers of bodies exhibiting physical signs consistent with, but not unique to, nerve agent exposure.”
Senior administration officials acknowledged that they had not yet obtained soil samples from the site of the attack to test for evidence of chemical agents.
The intelligence report also suggests a possible motive for the attack.
“We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition.”