The Wall Street Journal has published a detailed review of events leading up to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21.
Beyond the headline, “Missteps Doomed Civilians”, what does the investigation reveal and/or confirm?
Was The Assad Regime Responsible for the Attacks?
The report re-establishes what we knew already: the Assad regime, which may have carried out small-scale attacks before August, launched the chemical weapons assault on August 21.
However, the story also depicts the difficulty in ascertaining that Syrian forces had definitively used chemical weapons before August and that, even if it did so, this was paving the way for a larger operation.
The article repeats the story that US electronic intelligence intercepted an order to a specialist Syrian unit handling chemical weapons on August 18, amid fighting in the Damascus suburbs. The signals escalated over the next 48 hours, as poisons were mixed and an elite force was order to bring in the “big ones” and put on gas masks.
The claim of responsibility is bolstered by assertions from US and Israeli officials — again, much of it already known — that the Assad regime used “small amounts of chemical weapons” in operations from July 2012. It cited the March 2013 attack in Khan Assal in Aleppo, an operation in Aleppo the next month, and a small bomb on Saraqeb in Idlib Province on April 29.
The catch, however, is in a phrase applied to the first attacks in July 2012: “The evidence wasn’t conclusive — there were no physical traces.” So, as we evaluated earlier this year on EA, intelligence agencies — with “varying degrees of confidence” — could only “believe” that poison gas or chemical toxins had deliberately been used.
The most striking piece of new information is that Assad may have considered a bigger chemical operation in December 2012:
The U.S. intercepted an unusually complete communication in which Syrian officials spoke about a potentially larger-scale chemical attack involving aircraft. The White House sent private messages to the Russian government, which in turn asked Iran to lean on the Syrians to scrap the plan, according to current and former U.S. officials involved in the matter. Iran did just that, the officials say. A spokesperson for Iran’s U.N. mission said Iran had made it clear it opposed the use of chemical weapons.
Did The Assad Regime Inadvertently Turn A “Small” Attack into a “Big” One on August 21?
The article puts out the hypothesis that the mass killing on August 21 — at least 700 documented deaths, according to the Violations Documentation Center; at least 1,360, according to the Local Coordination Committees, drawing on reports from field hospitals just after the attacks — were the result of a miscalculation.
US and Israeli communications intercepts reveal chaos inside the Syrian regime that night. When the reports of mass casualties filtered back from the field, according to the officials briefed on the intelligence, panicked Syrian commanders shot messages to the front line: Stop using the chemicals!
Calls came in to the presidential palace from Syrian allies Russia and Iran, as well as from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group whose fighters were inadvertently caught up in the gassing.
The argument is that the Syrian military had not taken account of weather conditions or of the reactions of civilians to the first signs of an attack. As a result, the sarin nerve agent did not disperse but settled on the ground — including into the basements and shelters where residents were seeking safety.
Is the Obama Administration Guilty of Negligence
On the immediate case of the August 21 attacks, the article puts out a straightforward argument of the chain of communications not being able to process intelligence quickly enough to anticipate a large attack: “U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t translate the intercepts [from August 18 to August 20] into English right away, so White House officials didn’t know what the Syrian regime was planning until the assault began.”
However, effective communications probably would not have brought US intervention: “Even if they had translated the intercepts before the Aug. 21 strike, these officials say, they likely wouldn’t have acted because there were no indications it would be out of the ordinary.”
But this was not just an immediate case: even more serious is the allegation that the Obama Administration failed for more than a year to take action which could have limited the death toll.
Syrian opposition leaders made their first formal appeal to the U.S. for protection from chemical weapons….At a meeting in Washington, opposition representatives handed administration officials a request for various nonlethal supplies, including 2,500 gas masks, say people who attended.
ouse’s top human-rights official and now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was receptive, these people say. But other White House advisers, they say, questioned whether the masks would make much of a difference. Some worried that if Islamic extremists in the opposition got their hands on them they might try to seize poison gas from the regime. Administrative lawyers worried about potentially running afoul of domestic and international law.
U.S.-based representatives of the opposition stepped up their requests for protection, asking top Pentagon officials for a supply of the penlike auto-injectors carried by American troops, diplomats and spies to treat sarin exposure. They argued the devices were easier and quicker to use than conventional syringes. The answer was no.
Late June 2013
A French humanitarian group [had] sent 50 protective suits and 40,000 units of the antidote atropine to northern Syria….
“By April, Aleppo was ready,” recalls Dr. [Rachael] Pitti, and the goal was to do the same in Damascus and other cities.
In late June, the French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, accompanied a convoy of 16 tons of drugs, including 40,000 units of atropine, to the Syrian border.
Hundreds of gas masks and thousands of doses of antidote now were in the pipeline to the Damascus suburbs. They didn’t arrive in time.