Here Is the Evidence the U.S. Has on a Syrian Chemical-Weapons Attack

With an eye to the intelligence failure in Iraq, the Obama administration tries to sell a skeptical public on a response to Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. knows the Syrian regime carefully prepared for days to launch a chemical weapons attack.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 30, 2013, 12:48 p.m.

John Kerry re­peated one phrase over and over and over again Fri­day dur­ing his stern state­ment ac­cus­ing the As­sad re­gime of car­ry­ing out a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack in a Dam­as­cus sub­urb last week: “We know “¦”

The sec­ret­ary of State lis­ted a series of what he said were facts in this case, con­firmed by in­tel­li­gence sources and re­in­forced by a pa­per the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­leased about the at­tack. And it’s for a simple reas­on. Kerry and Pres­id­ent Obama are im­mensely aware of Ir­aq and the in­tel­li­gence mis­takes that the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion made in the run-up to the con­flict. In fact, Kerry ac­know­ledged as much.

“Our in­tel­li­gence com­munity has care­fully re­viewed and re-re­viewed in­form­a­tion re­gard­ing this at­tack. And I will tell you, it has done so more than mind­ful of the Ir­aq ex­per­i­ence,” Kerry said. “We will not re­peat that mo­ment.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion briefed con­gres­sion­al lead­ers with these find­ings, which Kerry said, “are as clear as they are com­pel­ling.” Of­fi­cials say they will con­tin­ue do­ing so in the com­ing days as the pres­id­ent con­siders a re­sponse to the sus­pec­ted at­tack.

So, here’s the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case for ac­tion:

The U.S. says it has known about the Syr­i­an chem­ic­al-weapons pro­gram for sev­er­al years be­cause of in­tel­li­gence ef­forts. Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say it is “old, vast, ex­pans­ive, very well run, tightly com­manded, and tightly con­trolled.” And while there are many mem­bers who op­er­ate in the chem­ic­al-weapons ap­par­at­us, Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad is the fi­nal “de­cision-maker” with all at­tacks.

“He’s ul­ti­mately in charge of de­ploy­ment,” a U.S. of­fi­cial said Fri­day. The “over­all use and over­all pro­gram is firmly un­der his con­trol.”

The As­sad re­gime has sev­er­al types of chem­ic­als in its weapons stock­piles, in­clud­ing mus­tard, sar­in, and VX, and it has used these weapons “on a small scale” in the past year on its own people. To the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment, the U.S. says, chem­ic­al weapons are just “one of many tools in its ar­sen­al.”

Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces failed to gain con­trol of sev­er­al sub­urbs around the cap­it­al city, where op­pos­i­tion forces had strong­holds and op­er­a­tion­al bases.

U.S. of­fi­cials say that in the days lead­ing up to the at­tack, Syr­i­an chem­ic­al-weapons per­son­nel pre­pared those weapons near a fa­cil­ity used to mix the chem­ic­al agents. On the day of the at­tack, Aug. 21, “a Syr­i­an re­gime ele­ment pre­pared for a chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack in the Dam­as­cus area, in­clud­ing through the util­iz­a­tion of gas masks,” ac­cord­ing to the pa­per.

The at­tack oc­curred in an area where op­pos­i­tion forces had taken over or where the As­sad re­gime was at­tempt­ing to make ad­vances, ac­cord­ing to geo­spa­cial in­tel­li­gence and sources on the ground. Those neigh­bor­hoods are out­lined by a White House map:

In the early hours of last Wed­nes­day, the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment star­ted a bar­rage of rock­et and ar­til­lery at­tacks on these neigh­bor­hoods. The fire­power came from ter­rit­ory con­trolled by the As­sad re­gime. About 90 minutes later, the first re­ports of chem­ic­al at­tacks star­ted flood­ing in, start­ing around 2:30 a.m. loc­al time, so start­ing the wave of so­cial-me­dia re­ports.

“With our own eyes we have seen the thou­sands of re­ports from 11 sep­ar­ate sites in the Dam­as­cus sub­urbs; all of them show and re­port vic­tims with breath­ing dif­fi­culties, people twitch­ing with spasms, cough­ing, rap­id-beat heart­beats, foam­ing at the mouth, un­con­scious­ness and death,” Kerry said Fri­day. “And we know it was or­din­ary Syr­i­an cit­izens who re­por­ted all of these hor­rors.”

These symp­toms that Kerry de­scribes are con­sist­ent with chem­ic­al at­tacks, which was con­firmed by Syr­i­an hos­pit­al per­son­nel. Three loc­al hos­pit­als, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, treated about 3,600 pa­tients with those symp­toms.

The at­tack res­ul­ted in 1,429 deaths, at least 426 of whom were chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to dif­fer­ent sources cited by the pa­per. Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say this is a pre­lim­in­ary tally that could tra­gic­ally rise.

At­tempt­ing to hide evid­ence from an even­tu­al in­vest­ig­a­tion from U.N. per­son­nel, the As­sad re­gime shelled the area where the chem­ic­al at­tacks oc­curred and at a high­er fre­quency — of­fi­cials say shelling was four times the rate than in the pre­vi­ous 10 days.

Syr­i­an chem­ic­al-weapons per­son­nel were also told on that af­ter­noon to “cease op­er­a­tions,” ac­cord­ing to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pa­per.

This at­tack, of­fi­cials ar­gue, broke norms set by the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity in the af­ter­math of World War I. To pre­serve this norm and send a mes­sage to coun­tries that might con­tem­plate us­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion, such as Ir­an or North Korea, the U.S. has to act, Kerry said. He con­tin­ued:

It mat­ters deeply to the cred­ib­il­ity in the fu­ture in­terests of the United States of Amer­ica and our al­lies. It mat­ters be­cause a lot of oth­er coun­tries whose policies chal­lenge these in­ter­na­tion­al norms are watch­ing. They are watch­ing. They want to see wheth­er the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is dir­ectly re­lated to our cred­ib­il­ity and wheth­er coun­tries still be­lieve the United States, when it says something, they are watch­ing to see if Syr­ia can get away with it be­cause then maybe they, too, can put the world at great­er risk.


Will they re­mem­ber that the As­sad re­gime was stopped from those weapons cur­rent or fu­ture use, or will they re­mem­ber that the world stood aside and cre­ated im­pun­ity?

Kerry said the U.S. couldn’t wait or rely on the United Na­tions, both in terms of the res­ults of its find­ings (it can’t de­term­ine who launched the chem­ic­al weapons) or in terms of the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil (there is “guar­an­teed Rus­si­an ob­struc­tion­ism”).

But many Amer­ic­ans have con­cerns about launch­ing an at­tack, however lim­ited in scale it might be or however dif­fer­ent it might look from the re­cent op­er­a­tion in Libya. The memory of Ir­aq is re­cent, and the U.S. still has troops in Afgh­anistan. To those cit­izens, Kerry has a warn­ing:

Fa­tigue does not ab­solve us of our re­spons­ib­il­ity. Just long­ing for peace does not ne­ces­sar­ily bring it about. And his­tory would judge us all ex­traordin­ar­ily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dic­tat­or’s wan­ton use of weapons of mass de­struc­tion against all warn­ings, against all com­mon un­der­stand­ing of de­cency.

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