Simon Barrow

US and UK dossiers leave confusion over Syrian chemical weapons

By Simon Barrow
August 31, 2013

Within hours of publication, the Obama administration's documentation on Syria, which is being used to support the case for US-led direct military strikes on the country, has been criticised for its lack of verifiable detail.

The three-page white paper, which claims to prove the culpability of the Assad regime for a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus, contains no direct quotes, no photographic evidence, no named sources, and no independently supported evidence, notes analyst Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He now heads up the Consortium for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in the United States.

"The white paper against Syria is noteworthy in that it lacks any specifics that can be assessed independently, in contrast to, say, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UN Security Council which included intercepted quotes from Iraqi officials and satellite photographs of suspected Iraqi WMD locations," writes Mr Parry on Consortiumnews.com

For its "seemingly incriminating assertions, no supporting evidence is cited: no satellite or other photos of these military movements were released, no names of individuals mentioned, no communications intercepts published," writes Parry. "Just assertions attributed to 'sources' with no way to assess their reliability."

He concludes: "The claims are so lacking in detail that they amount to an insistence that the American people and the world’s public simply trust the US government not to mislead them — again."

This does not mean that the conclusions are necessarily wrong, some critics say, just unproven in any way that would stand up in a court of law at present.

For example, David Kay, a weapons expert who was formerly part of the Iraq Survey Group, told the BBC on 30 August: "There is no doubt that a chemical weapons attack took place but not such a compelling case on who did it. The evidence tying this attack directly to the Assad regime was largely circumstantial and asserted -- not revealed."

On the basis of its short document, 'US Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013', Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Syrian government forces of killing 1,429 people in a chemical weapons attack last week – on the same day that UN inspectors arrived.

But according to Associated Press (AP) sources on 30 August 2013: "The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no 'slam dunk,' with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, US intelligence officials say.

"US satellites have captured images of Syrian troops moving trucks into weapons storage areas and removing materials, but US analysts have not been able to track what was moved or, in some cases, where it was relocated. They are also not certain that when they saw what looked like Assad’s forces moving chemical supplies, those forces were able to remove everything before rebels took over an area where weapons had been stored," reports AP.

"In addition, an intercept of Syrian military officials discussing the strike was among low-level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack back to an Assad insider or even a senior Syrian commander, the officials said."

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) summary of evidence released to British parliamentarians, before they rejected calls to endorse "in principle" military action on 29 August, has also come under fire for its lack of verifiable detail.

"The UK government has released a dossier on the Houta incident which is remarkably free of science and big on supposition. We are told the Assad regime has engaged in chemical warfare on at least 14 previous occasions, and yet none of these are named and no evidence is cited", observes US conservative journalist Justin Raimondo.

British Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis, a respected member of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, has asked to see the intelligence on which the published summary is based, as he has security clearance to receive it. He was one of those who voted against his own party leader and government.

Lewis declared in the House of Commons debate: "That summary is not conclusive and in fact states that the JIC is baffled to find a motive for Assad having done this, as well it might be."

Meanwhile, Dale Gavlak (who has filed for for the Associated Press, NPR and the BBC) and Yahya Ababneh (a Jordanian freelance journalist) have claimed on Mint Press News that rebels and local residents in Ghouta have accused Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan of providing chemical weapons to an al-Qaeda linked rebel group.

They write: "US Secretary of State John Kerry [said on] Monday that Assad’s guilt was 'a judgment ... already clear to the world.'

"However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.

"'My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.

"Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a 'tube-like structure' while others were like a 'huge gas bottle.'

"Ghouta townspeople said the rebels were using mosques and private houses to sleep while storing their weapons in tunnels.

"Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the chemical weapons attack. That same day, the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaeda, announced that it would similarly attack civilians in the Assad regime’s heartland of Latakia on Syria’s western coast, in purported retaliation," write Gavlak and Ababneh.

However, once again, the authors, while having good pedigrees, also acknowledge that they have not yet been able to verify these claims independently.

It is known that the Syrian government holds chemical agent stocks which can be used (and maybe have been used) as weapons, and in May 2013 UN human rights investigators gathered testimony from casualties and medical staff also indicating that rebel forces may have used the nerve agent sarin.

Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told Swiss TV there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” that rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used the nerve agent.

In May this year, Turkish security forces found a cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front.

In January, Bassam Al-Dada, a prominent member of the Free Syrian Army, was quoted by Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency as claiming that the rebels have all the components to produce chemical weapons and also have the know-how to put them together and to use them if necessary.

In a Digital Journal op-ed on 28 August, Ken Hanly claims that "[t]here is also considerable evidence that the rebels used chemical weapons in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo in March." The source here seems to be Russian intelligence, while the Kerry document relies heavily on Israeli intercept claims. Both sources have strong vested interests.

Moreover, "[t]he United States and some European allies are using defense contractors to train Syrian rebels on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, a senior US official and several senior diplomats told CNN Sunday," wrote Elise Labott for CNN on 9 December 2012. Jordan has been cited as one training base.

Overall, the picture regarding the possession, deployment and use of chemical weapons in Syria remains highly confused, with contradictory claims and little confirmable fact.

UN specialist inspectors are now concluding their investigations, having substantially examined the evidence regarding the 21 August attacks near Damascus, and having also spoken to at least one of three groups of soldiers nearby who claim to be victims of chemical agent use by rebels.

They are due to report initially to UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon within the next 48 hours.

Addendum: Sunday 1 September: What is my own assessment at the moment? None of the intelligence and evidence is hugely clearer after a few days' scrutiny. Nevertheless, the circumstantial drift definitely leans to the 21 August attacks being from within the regime, though not necessarily from the top. As Dr Julian Lewis notes, "we are getting stories that the attack was ordered by Assad’s brother in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on the leadership, and on the other hand hearing that there is intercept evidence that somebody who was unauthorised was responsible and that there was a telephone conversation in which somebody said, 'Why on earth did you do this?' and a panicked reaction to the unauthorised release of poison gas" (House of Commons, 29 August 2013). It is highly likely that some opposition groups have access to chemical agents, or will do soon. None of this points towards the wisdom of an ill-considered military strike. It mostly certainly suggests that the protagonists need, among other things, to get evidence of atrocities and chemical agent use to the UN and the UNSC as soon as possible; to engage the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria; to enforce arms embargoes with commitment and vigour across the board; and to engage regional and global action on chemical weapons control and the strengthening and extension of inspection regimes. See also: Game-changing: Syria, tough reality and alternatives to military adventurism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18970

Main sources:

* 'A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War', by Robert Parry: http://consortiumnews.com/2013/08/30/a-dodgy-dossier-on-syrian-war/

* US Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/30/government-assessm...

* AP sources: Intelligence on weapons no 'slam dunk': http://m.decaturdaily.com/news/other_news/national/article_616960f6-e951... Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper, Julie Pace and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.

* 'Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack', by Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh: http://www.mintpressnews.com/witnesses-of-gas-attack-say-saudis-supplied...

* CNN: Pentagon Contractors trained Syrian Terrorists to use Chemical Weapons: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L8dUv4R7Ig

* Sources: U.S. helping underwrite Syrian rebel training on securing chemical weapons, by Elise Labott, CNN: http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/09/sources-defense-contractors-tra...

* 'Free Syrian Army claims chemical weapons capability', Anatolia News Agency, Turkey, 2 January 2013.

* Op-Ed: Do the Syrian rebels have access to chemical weapons?, by Ken Hanly: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/357288#ixzz2dVa3kVcw

* UN's Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels 'used sarin', BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22424188

* Letter from the JIC chair, Jon Daly (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

* Syria chemical weapons attack killed 1,429, says John Kerry. BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23906913

* Syria and the use of chemical weapons. Dr Julian Lewis MP: http://www.julianlewis.net/commons-speeches/3773:syria-and-the-use-of-ch...

* More on Syria from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/syria

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter @simonbarrow

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