Apparently we still don’t know who gassed Ghouta

The identification, surrender, and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile seems to be continuing apace, with the US agreeing to handle the destruction of Syria’s bulk chemical stockpiles (i.e., the stuff that hasn’t already been mixed into lethal chemicals and/or been put into a warhead) starting early next year aboard a maritime reserve vessel specially fitted for the job. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) still has to destroy Syria’s industrial capacity for making new chemicals and loading new chemical weapons as well as finding and destroying any active weapons themselves, which is going to be a real undertaking assuming it can actually be done. The OPCW is warning that it will be unable to hit its initial targets for having the weapons out of Syria, even as it seems to remain confident that all the weapons can be destroyed by the final, mid-2014 target. The Syrian Army is still trying to secure the Homs highway, safe passage on which is going to be vital to the effort to move chemical weapons and precursors out of Damascus and to the Mediterranean coast, though it’s a safe bet that the army is trying to drive the rebels off of the highway for reasons other than the security of the OPCW’s chemical weapons convoys.

This is more or less good news if you care about the proliferation and use of chemical weapons, although it may be kind of a shame (depending on your perspective) that securing the Homs highway has important strategic benefits for Assad as well as for shipping those weapons out of the war zone. However, Seymour Hersh’s latest piece in the London Review of Books calls into question the entire process that has brought us to this point, and levies a very serious accusation against the Obama Administration–that they cherry-picked intelligence to make the case that Assad’s forces, rather than the rebels, were behind the event that started the whole thing, the sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August.

The strongest charge Hersh makes is that the administration looked at the available intel about the strike already convinced that Assad was behind it, and looked for any intel that followed a pattern observed during a previous sarin threat (which turned out to have been a Syrian Army exercise). In essence, they weren’t trying to figure out who launched the attack so much as they were trying to build the case against Assad, and to do so they used that prior sarin threat as a template and just started grabbing at any intel that fit the conclusion and the template:

The NSA would of course monitor Assad’s office around the clock if it could, the former official said. Other communications – from various army units in combat throughout Syria – would be far less important, and not analysed in real time. ‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.

The administration also seems to have ignored evidence that didn’t fit the story it wanted to tell. For one thing, Hersh talks about the existence of a network of sensors that the National Reconnaissance Office is running, placed near suspected chemical weapons sites inside Syria; these sensors had picked up the activity related to the previous sarin scare, last December, but detected nothing in August. This was apparently ignored even as that December scare was being used to build the argument that Assad was responsible for Ghouta. The munitions (the artillery shells themselves) used in the attack may have been much cruder than the weaponry known to be used by the Syrian Army, and may have been easily produced by the rebels; moreover, the effective range of these munitions, which are so unlike any previously known munitions that the excellent Syria blogger Eliot Higgins (“Brown Moses”) has termed them “Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks” (UMLACA), are estimated to be nowhere near the ~9 km it would have to be in order to correspond to their alleged flight path from government-controlled territory to Ghouta. This evidence was also apparently ignored. CIA and DIA briefings suggesting that Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had the technical knowledge needed to manufacture sarin were also discarded.

Even though the upshot of the wrangling after Ghouta was that the United States did not intervene in the war, the allegation that the administration ignored or distorted intelligence in order to build the case for intervention is incredibly serious. The Office of the DNI has flatly denied the charge. Higgins, writing in Foreign Policy, produced a fairly convincing takedown of the idea that the rebels were behind the attack (of course it’s entirely possible that the Obama Administration cherry-picked its intel even if its conclusion that Assad was behind the attack proves correct). For one thing, analysis of open source intel (in this case, videos available on YouTube) shows that the Syrian army has used these UMLACA in past engagements, including other alleged cases of sarin use, and that UMLACA had been used in the vicinity of Ghouta in late August, around the same time as the sarin attack. The range of the UMLACA may not be long enough to fit the original 9 km estimate, but it does seem to be long enough (2-2.5 km) that it could have been launched at Ghouta from regime-held territory. But the strongest piece of evidence in support of the regime having executed the attack is still, to me, the difficulty of manufacturing sarin:

I asked chemical weapons specialist Dan Kaszeta for his opinion on that. He compared the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra using chemical weapons to another terrorist attack involving sarin: the 1996 gassing of the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

“The 1994 to 1996 Japanese experience tells us that even a very large and sophisticated effort comprising many millions of dollars, a dedicated large facility, and a lot of skilled labor results only in liters of sarin, not tons,” Kaszeta said. “Even if the Aug. 21 attack is limited to the eight Volcano rockets that we seem to be talking about, we’re looking at an industrial effort two orders of magnitude larger than the Aum Shinrikyo effort. This is a nontrivial and very costly undertaking, and I highly doubt whether any of the possible nonstate actors involved here have the factory to have produced it. Where is this factory? Where is the waste stream? Where are the dozens of skilled people — not just one al Qaeda member — needed to produce this amount of material?”

However, and there’s always a however with this story, there is at least some evidence to suggest that the sarin was produced by the rebels, not the government. The website “Who Attacked Ghouta?” (via) has compiled evidence that rebels, specifically members of Jabhat al-Nusrah, have at least once attempted to obtain the precursor chemicals needed to manufacture sarin; six of them were arrested in Turkey for doing so. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that obtaining these chemicals is not that difficult, and that non-governmental actors can manufacture sarin in some quantity. They have also looked at the chemical analysis of the sarin used in Ghouta and argued that the makeup of the residue found there suggests a primitive manufacturing process using low-grade precursors, the kind of thing you’d expect a rebel militia to produce but not what you’d expect if the regime had used its sarin in the attack. Higgins published a response to this last claim, written by the aforementioned Dan Kaszeta, contending that the poor quality of the sarin doesn’t mean that it wasn’t produced by the Syrians and that, in fact, the sheer volume of sarin that had to be used at Ghouta (substantially more than was used by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway attack) argues for government production rather than manufacture by the rebels. “Who Attacked Ghouta?” then rebutted Kaszeta, arguing that while it’s possible that a government sarin program could produce low-quality sarin, Syria’s program is supposed to have been far more sophisticated than that, and also contending that, since the victims were civilians who lacked proper chemical weapons gear, the amount of sarin needed to produce the level of casualties seen at Ghouta was not prohibitively large.

It must be noted that there are reports floating around about the intelligence community’s general dissatisfaction with President Obama’s defense (or lack thereof) of their surveillance activity in the wake of the Snowden revelations, so it wouldn’t be absurd to imagine that Hersh’s source or sources were pushing an agenda or settling a score in telling him what they were telling him. In my view the case for Assad having ordered the Ghouta attack has always been suspicious; there was no strategic or tactical upside to using chemical weapons when Assad had (and still has) been winning the war without them, and plenty of downside given the possibility of an American military response (and even absent that response he’s now losing his chemical weapons stockpiles). It seemed more likely to me that the attack was launched by a rogue commander or because of a breakdown in the chain of command. On the other hand, to believe that the rebels were actually behind the attack (maybe accidentally, it should be said) requires demonstrating that they had the know-how and capacity to manufacture the sarin as well as the delivery system, and while there seems to be an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that they may have been able to do so, it seems to me that none of it has approached conclusive yet. It’s still easier to imagine a rogue or mistaken government launch than it is to imagine that Nusrah or some other extremist faction was able to carry this attack out from the sarin manufacture stage on.

On the other hand, that old post shows that I was also skeptical about the chemical weapons deal holding up, and it has so far, so what do I know?

Author: DWD

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