President Obama made the right and honorable decision to ask Congress before launching a missile attack on Syria. It was a surprising change, and impressive. The issue now turns to persuading Congress that hypothetical costs of not attacking exceed obvious risks of attacking – including those of a vengeful strike on Israel from Syria, Lebanon, and/or Gaza, which could get the U.S. deeply entangled.
The centerpiece of the White House argument for a punitive strike on Assad is the unclassified “U.S. Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013.” This report claims more confidence than the evidence permits, though remaining prudently “short of confirmation.” It will be argued that the most convincing evidence is classified, of course, but that was also said about the far more detailed October 2002 intelligence assessment of Saddam Hussein’s programs to manufacture and deliver a bewildering assortment of WMDs, from Botox and castor oil to peanut mold. If the new unclassified report was not intended to be persuasive, why bother putting it out? The conclusions of the new assessment on Syria may turn out to be correct, of course, but it echoes some of the fuzzy illogic of the 2002 report.
The key questions are simple, but the answers are not. What chemical killed or injured all those civilians? Were the deaths from inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion, and (a closely related question) how were the chemicals delivered? Certain answers are required to be certain of the perpetrators. It is insufficient to say, as the assessment does, that it is “highly unlikely” that opposition activists were involved, or that video and verbal evidence the opposition supplied is beyond critical examination. Either the government assessment provides persuasive answers to these questions or it does not.
Here is a list of key points in the assessment, followed by my lingering reservations:
1. “The Syrian regime maintains a stockpile of numerous chemical agents, including mustard, sarin, and VX.”
Assuming this is verifiable (“numerous” is meaningless), two of those three agents are surely irrelevant. The evidence from August 21 is inconsistent with mustard (which scars and blinds) or VX (which would not have left so many survivors). This explains the unproven assumption that sarin is the culprit, because other plausible poisons (such as chlorine or cyanide) are not confined to either side of Syria’s civil war. The report cites “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” (emphasis added). Admitting that such evidence is “not unique to” nerve agents means the videos do not prove that any nerve agent was involved. The videos do not settle where the deaths occurred or how. People could be massacred with poisoned food or drink, or by industrial chemicals or chlorine in an enclosed space.
2. “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. . . . This assessment is based on multiple streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin.”
If read too hastily, this might look like as though someone has actual lab evidence that a specific agent – sarin – was involved on August 21 (though Secretary Kerry’s remarks yesterday may change this situation, the assessment does not rely on that evidence). On the contrary, the reference to multiple “small scale” attacks is clearly not about the August 21 attack at all. Relying on “multiple streams of information” is also curiously vague, since the June report by U.N. investigators could not confirm the use of sarin or the perpetrator. The assessment offers no credible justification for confidence about what nerve agent, if any, was used on August 21. It offers only patchwork “streams of information” from opposition-supplied videos, opposition hospital staff, and anonymous social media about how the unknown agent was supposedly delivered by an undefined number of small rockets with unexplained warheads.
3. “On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks . . . approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.”
The phrase “Syrian regime element” is oddly nebulous; if it was intended to mean Syrian troops, the report would have said so. Gas masks alone would provide inadequate protection against sarin, which is liquid at room temperature, evaporates quickly (but leaves traces in the soil) and can be deadly with skin contact.
4. The evidence includes “the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning.”
Occupation-supplied videos show large rockets in the launchers, unlike the small ones allegedly found at the scene (sometimes touched or carried by people without gloves or masks, evidently unworried about contamination).
5. “Multiple accounts [in social media] described chemical-filled rockets impacting opposition-controlled areas.”
Every user of Facebook or Twitter knows it is easy to post false or honestly mistaken reports on social media. And “multiple accounts” could mean a handful.
7. “Three hospitals in the Damascus area received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure in less than three hours on the morning of August 21, according to a highly credible international humanitarian organization.”
That organization, Doctors without Borders, was reporting second-hand self-reported information from unknown people representing hospitals in the opposition-controlled areas. Is it inconceivable that such hospital employees might have been intimidated into misreporting the facts?
7. “The reported symptoms, and the epidemiological pattern of events – characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers – were consistent with mass exposure to a nerve agent.”
Several observers have questioned why medical and first-aid workers appeared to take no precautions against being contaminated (e.g., wearing short-sleeve shirts with no gloves or masks). Contamination of a sizable number of medical and first-aid workers has not yet been documented in news reports, or by U.N. inspectors, so why would the CIA not share such important evidence if they really have it?
The most commonly reported symptoms (difficulty breathing) omit the most obvious signs of nerve agents – vomiting and convulsions. One video of a man wriggling his legs looks like a deliberate act, not a convulsion. Pinpoint pupils could be circumstantial evidence of nerve agents, but that symptom was mentioned only in second-hand reports – not proven with photographs (which would still be inconclusive because opiates or pilocarpine eye drops could be used to constrict pupils).
8. “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs . . . In the 24 hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days.”
In other words, there was also rocket fire against these suburbs before and after August 21. In fact, that is precisely why widely publicized photos of a few rockets tell us nothing about what was inside their warheads. Nobody doubts the area was shelled by rockets, or that many people died from toxic exposure through breathing, skin, or ingestion. The lingering doubts are about whether or not the area was shelled by a sufficient number ofchemical warheads to account for the large number of dead and ambiguous symptoms of survivors, and, if so, what agent was used.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Yet even if the answers were supplied, the risks of an allegedly brief and limited U.S. missile strike seem huge and the benefits obscure. Does the U.S. intelligence community really believe Assad is such a reasonable person that he would not respond with perilous irrationality? Now, that would be an assessment well worth reading.