U.S. Knew Syrians Were Preparing for Chemical-Weapons Attack

Senior administration officials say the U.S. has forestalled these attacks in the last year.

A young victim of an attack on Ghouta, Syria recuperating in a hospital.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 30, 2013, 11:04 a.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had ad­vanced warn­ing of pos­sible chem­ic­al at­tacks by the As­sad re­gime in the last year but was able to fore­stall such an out­come through dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts.

That’s ac­cord­ing to seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials on Fri­day, speak­ing to re­port­ers after the U.S. re­leased evid­ence of a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack last week in the Dam­as­cus sub­urbs. One of­fi­cial said when an at­tack was im­min­ent, the U.S. de­ployed either dir­ect mes­saging to the As­sad re­gime or con­duc­ted pub­lic dip­lomacy, which in­cluded speeches from Pres­id­ent Obama.

“At vari­ous junc­tures over the last year, when we saw par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing things, we were able to de­marche dip­lo­mat­ic­ally a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent coun­tries so that the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment would get the mes­sage that the use of chem­ic­al weapons vi­ol­ated a fun­da­ment­al in­ter­na­tion­al norm,” the seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. “That in­cludes, by the way, dir­ect mes­saging to the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment as well.”

But this opens up ques­tions about the latest at­tack. In its pa­per present­ing evid­ence that the As­sad re­gime was in fact re­spons­ible for the at­tack, the ad­min­is­tra­tion cited in­form­a­tion out­lining the dif­fer­ent pre­par­a­tions that went in­to the al­leged at­tack.

From the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pa­per:

We have in­tel­li­gence that leads us to as­sess that Syr­i­an chem­ic­al weapons per­son­nel — in­clud­ing per­son­nel as­sessed to be as­so­ci­ated with the SS­RC — were pre­par­ing chem­ic­al mu­ni­tions pri­or to the 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.

Syr­i­an chem­ic­al weapons per­son­nel were op­er­at­ing in the Dam­as­cus sub­urb of ‘Adra from Sunday, Au­gust 18, un­til early in the morn­ing on Wed­nes­day, Au­gust 21, near an area that the re­gime uses to mix chem­ic­al weapons, in­clud­ing sar­in. On Au­gust 21, a Syr­i­an re­gime ele­ment pre­pared for a chem­ic­al weapons at­tack in the Dam­as­cus area, in­clud­ing through the util­iz­a­tion of gas masks. Our in­tel­li­gence sources in the Dam­as­cus area did not de­tect any in­dic­a­tions in the days pri­or to the at­tack that op­pos­i­tion af­fil­i­ates were plan­ning to use chem­ic­al weapons.

So, how much ad­vanced no­tice the U.S. had be­fore the gas at­tack in the Dam­as­cus sub­urbs? And would the U.S. have been able to act in time to stop it?

Asked about what the U.S. did to stop that spe­cif­ic re­sponse, the of­fi­cial said their in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing is not al­ways con­sist­ent and timely.

“Timelines for all of our streams of in­tel­li­gence are dif­fer­ent,” a sep­ar­ate seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. “And so, in some cases we can and do get something close to real time. And oth­er times, be­cause of the nature of the ac­cess or the pro­ced­ure or the pro­cess, there is some built-in delay. And, again, I don’t want to add more here what’s on our cap­ab­il­ity side, but just to say that we feel con­fid­ent that we can in fact identi­fy that those pre­par­a­tions oc­curred, that they were un­der the re­gime con­trol, and thus im­ple­men­ted from above.”

Thus, if the As­sad re­gime were to launch an­oth­er chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack, could the U.S. act in enough time to stop it? Or what about a nuc­le­ar at­tack from Ir­an or North Korea? For now, as the of­fi­cial said, it’s un­clear what sort of ad­vanced no­tice the ad­min­is­tra­tion has with these at­tacks.

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