According to the leaks that the media have amplified over the last week or so, the evidence is clear that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against rebels in a Damascus suburb, indiscriminately killing hundreds of civilians. Barack Obama insisted yesterday in a PBS interview that only the Bashar al-Assad regime possessed the chemical weapons used in the attack, and that radio intercepts showed that Assad’s military ordered the attack. A UN inspection team hasn’t yet finalized its report on exactly what was used, but even if the above is true — and it was always more likely that the army conducted the attack than the rebels — did the order to use the weapons come from on high, or from a rogue commander on the ground?
According to the AP and New York Times … no one really knows. The most recent AP report says that the US intel community says the Assad connection is no “slam dunk”:
The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people 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, U.S. intelligence officials say. …
However, multiple U.S. officials used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture — a reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that U.S. intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” — intelligence that turned out to be wrong.
A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria is thick with caveats. It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture. Relevant congressional committees were to be briefed on that evidence by teleconference call on Thursday, U.S. officials and congressional aides said.
The complicated intelligence picture raises questions about the White House’s full-steam-ahead approach to the Aug. 21 attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb, with worries that the attack could be tied to al-Qaida-backed rebels later. Administration officials said Wednesday that neither the U.N. Security Council, which is deciding whether to weigh in, or allies’ concerns would affect their plans.
More intelligence was being sought by U.S. officials. While a lower-level Syrian military commanders’ communications discussing a chemical attack had been intercepted, they don’t specifically link the attack to an official senior enough to tie the killings to Assad himself, according to one U.S. intelligence official and two other U.S. officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.
The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military acting without Assad’s authorization.
That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad. The report was promised earlier this week by administration officials.
The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack, relying on the intelligence services of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the officials said. The administration was planning a teleconference briefing Thursday on Syria for leaders of the House and Senate and national security committees in both parties, U.S. officials and congressional aides said.
Both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have their own human sources — the rebel commanders and others who cross the border to brief CIA and defense intelligence officers at training camps in Jordan and Turkey. But their operation is much smaller than some of the other intelligence services, and it takes longer for their contacts to make their way overland.
Wouldn’t that be a good reason to remain patient and not conduct a rash military intervention? If we have no intel linking Assad or his senior commanders to an order using chemical weapons, why would we bomb Syrians in retaliation? Why not demand the extradition of the commander for trial in the Hague instead?
Similarly, the New York Times waits a while to get to the point, but their lead-in focuses on the erroneous intel of the Iraq War, which then-Senator Obama used to cite during his first presidential campaign as the major failing of his predecessor:
But with the botched intelligence about Iraq still casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, the White House faces an American public deeply skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict and a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties angry about the prospect of an American president once again going to war without Congressional consultation or approval.
American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation. They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground.
But even without hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack, administration officials asserted, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.
“The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership,” said the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf — even if, she added, “He’s not the one who pushes the button or says ‘go’ on this.”
Administration officials said that communications between military commanders intercepted after Wednesday’s attack provided proof that the assault was not the result of a rogue unit acting against orders. It is unclear how much detail about these communications, if any, will be made public.
One correction to the New York Times’ argument: Obama is the only President who goes to war without Congressional approval. Congress approved military action against Iraq in late 2002, which passed by wide bipartisan majorities.
With this context, it becomes a lot easier to see why the UN inspection team, Russia, and China are objecting to the rush to retaliate, even if they can’t do a lot about it. David Cameron will go to Parliament with this data and try to convince his skeptical House of Commons that this intel provides justification for the West opening up another war in the Middle East — just two years after the disastrous NATO intervention against Moammar Qaddafi drove the Brits and all other Western nations out of Benghazi, the city NATO purported to save. Don’t expect Cameron to have much success in convincing Parliament to take another ride on this merry-go-round, and if he fails, that’s going to make it much more difficult politically for Obama to move forward, at home and abroad, at least not without Congressional authorization.