International chemical weapons experts generally agree that the evidence presented Friday in an unclassified U.S. report about the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria seems stronger than the faulty intelligence employed to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But doubts remain.
“There are lots of things that aren’t spelled out,” said Richard Guthrie, formerly project leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
For example, the report refers to intercepted communications among Syrian regime officials, Guthrie said, but it provides no transcripts.
“That’s the difficulty,” he said. “There’s still this problem of, ‘Trust us, we have more intelligence.’”
The Obama administration released the unclassified intelligence report in an effort to make its case for military intervention in Syria. The report said the government has “high confidence” that the Syrian regime carried out a poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21.
“High confidence” is the strongest position the U.S. intelligence community can take short of confirmation.
The four-page document relies on a wide variety of sources, from human intelligence and satellite images to social media and videos. It says satellites detected rocket launches from regime-controlled territory to neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred, and a “Syrian regime element” in the area prepared for the launch by utilizing gas masks.
The report also references intercepted communications involving a senior regime leader “who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”
Gregory D. Koblentz, an expert in weapons of mass destruction at the Council on Foreign Relations, said similar declassified documents were released by the United States in 1998 before the bombing of Iraq – an attack by the U.S. and Great Britain over Iraq’s failure to comply with United Nations weapons inspections – and in 2003 prior to the invasion of Iraq.
The intelligence in this situation looks different than 2003 because the U.S. knows that weapons were used and the information is coming from multiple sources, Koblentz said.
“The evidence looks to be pretty ironclad,” he said.
But Koblentz cautioned that it’s difficult to evaluate the strength of the evidence that would determine Assad’s direct responsibility for the attacks.
“Establishing a chain of command; that’s the more difficult thing,” he said.
Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, was a vocal critic of the faulty intelligence used to justify the Iraq war. This time, however, he said he was convinced by the evidence as presented in Friday’s report.
“I’m actually quite impressed at the transparency of the case as it’s laid out,” Thielmann said. “So while one sees a lot of similarities with the Iraq WMD (weapons of mass destruction) fiasco, I feel much differently about the conclusions in this case than I did at the time when I was dissenting (about Iraq).”
“All kinds of warning lights went off before and they’re not going off now,” Thielmann said.
Thielmann said the intercepts of Syrian military commanders’ conversations and information about the timing and location of rocket launches on the day of the attacks were “very damning.”
“The intelligence community has undertaken some important reforms” since 2003, he said. “And the Obama administration is so obviously reluctant to engage militarily in the Middle East that that makes the end assessment much more creditable.”
But another leading chemical weapons expert pointed out that many elements in the report are short on confirmation.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons who until recently was a senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, said in an email from France that he was surprised by the report’s death toll figure of 1,429, a number much higher than the several hundred estimated by humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders.
“Not that it is impossible, but because it coincides with the higher range cited by insurgent sources,” Zanders said.
Zanders said he also was surprised about the revelation that the U.S. had collected intelligence from multiple sources in the three days prior to the attack that showed Syrian weapons personnel were preparing chemical munitions.
“Was this something the U.S. had in real time or did it get it (and) appreciate its significance after the attacks?” he said. “If not, then my question is why the Obama administration did not issue a public warning to deter the attack?”
At least one former chemical weapons inspector who was involved in gathering intelligence in Iraq 10 years ago saw more similarities to 2003 than differences.
The inspector, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said that reading the unclassified U.S. intelligence report on Friday gave him a sense of deja vu. He said the lack of information about a specific chemical agent could indicate that the administration lacks forensic evidence.
“A lot of this seems circumstantial,” he said. “This document is written by the choir for the choir to preach to the choir.”