The Guardian reports: President Bashar al-Assad did not personally order last month’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus that has triggered calls for US military intervention, and blocked numerous requests from his military commanders to use chemical weapons against regime opponents in recent months, a German newspaper has reported, citing unidentified, high-level national security sources.
The intelligence findings were based on phone calls intercepted by a German surveillance ship operated by the BND, the German intelligence service, and deployed off the Syrian coast, Bild am Sonntag said. The intercepted communications suggested Assad, who is accused of war crimes by the west, including foreign secretary William Hague, was not himself involved in last month’s attack or in other instances when government forces have allegedly used chemical weapons.
Assad sought to exonerate himself from the August attack in which hundreds died. “There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” he said in an interview with CBS.
But the intercepts tended to add weight to the claims of the Obama administration and Britain and France that elements of the Assad regime, and not renegade rebel groups, were responsible for the attack in the suburb of Ghouta, Bild said. [Continue reading…]
This report lends weight to the implications in a report published on August 27 which raised questions about culpability for the chemical massacre:
Last Monday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.
But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on August 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”
While some opponents of a military strike on Syria have been distracted by far-fetched theories about rebels being responsible for the chemical attack and by simplistic comparisons with the run up to the war in Iraq, there is a comparison with Iraq that might be much more pertinent.
Bush and Blair misled Americans and Britons by claiming to have much stronger intelligence than they actually possessed. Obama and Kerry may be guilty of doing almost the opposite, which is to say, limiting the amount of intelligence they reveal because it undercuts their rationale for attacking the Assad regime.
Administration officials have persistently dodged the question about whether they believe Assad ordered the chemical attack. They argue that irrespective of whether he issued the command, as the leader of his armed forces, he must be held responsible for their actions.
That argument is reasonable up to a point. That is, it is reasonable if Bashar al-Assad is indeed in control of his own forces.
But what if multiple intelligence sources provide evidence that that is not the case? What if the Obama administration has reason to believe that the chemical attack was conducted not only without Assad’s direct authorization but also, as the Bild report claims, in contradiction with his stated wishes? Why now hold Assad personally responsible?
There are several possible explanations. Firstly, the message that chemical attacks will be punished does not actually need to be directed at anyone specifically but applies to all Syrians who might be involved in such attacks in the future. Arguably, that’s a legitimate reason for not caring whether Assad himself ordered the attack.
A second explanation, however, would be political, and that is that the administration does not want to reinforce the perception that Assad’s hold on power is weak. If that is indeed part of the administration’s thinking, then it is withholding the release of important intelligence for wholly illegitimate reasons. It could in this scenario reasonably be accused of propping up the Assad regime.
Even in its public statements, the administration is already close to having assumed this position. Forgotten are the days when Obama was saying that Assad must go. The administration’s official position now is that it does not support either side in Syria’s civil war. John Kerry: “We make it crystal clear now in every statement that we have made, this action has nothing to do with engaging directly in Syria’s civil war on one side or the other.”