British report shows Syria case far from a slam-dunk

Olivier Knox
Yahoo News
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to be driven to the Houses of Parliament for a debate and vote on Syria, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Britain's opposition Labour Party has indicated it may not support even a watered down version of a government resolution on Syria. Labour leader Ed Miliband said Thursday he is unwilling to give Prime Minister David Cameron a "blank check" for conducting possible future military operations against Syria. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Staunch U.S. ally Britain dealt a blow to President Barack Obama’s push for possible military action against Syria on Thursday, releasing intelligence findings that make it clear that evidence Bashar Assad ordered last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack is far from a slam-dunk.

“There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack,” Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee chairman, Jon Day, wrote in a memorandum made public by the government.

In another section, Day said Britain had “a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks.”

Day said there is evidence that the regime used chemical weapons on a smaller scale on 14 previous occasions. And “there is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW [chemical weapons] by the opposition.” Overall, Day said, it is “highly likely that the regime was responsible.”

But Day’s memo does not directly address other possibilities, like accidental launch. Or launch by a rogue Syrian military officer. Or a conventional shell striking a chemical weapons cache (depending on the substance). Or launch by a third party, like forces fighting for Assad but answering to Iran.

But his report noted that “permission to authorise CW has probably been delegated by President Asad to senior regime commanders.”

(There are also curious assertions in Day’s memo. At one point, he writes that “there is no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence in Syria of the UN investigation team.” But that team arrived in Syria on Aug. 18. The alleged chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb came on Aug. 21. Whatever Assad's calculation is, it does not appear to be limited by the presence of U.N. inspectors.)

The British report is far more cautious than the White House has been over the past week. On Tuesday, press secretary Jay Carney heaped scorn on anyone who doubted the U.S. conclusion that the Assad regime had deliberately launched the attack.

“You would have to be credulous indeed to entertain an alternative scenario that could only be fanciful,” Carney said.

The world reeled in shock last week in the face of graphic videos and photographs of grief-stricken parents weeping over dead children and health workers trying to revive unresponsive victims that some experts said showed clear signs of having been hit with chemical weapons. Rebels fighting to topple Assad said as many as 1,300 were killed in such an attack on a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.

The respected Medecins Sans Frontieres international humanitarian organization lent its considerable credibility to the chemical weapons charge, saying hospitals it supports in Damascus reported treating some 3,600 patients “displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013.” Of those, 355 reportedly died, the organization said.

The White House has promised to make public some U.S. intelligence findings proving the case against Assad. Senior administration officials were due to brief key lawmakers on Thursday at 6 p.m. eastern time on that intelligence, after which disclosing some portion of the evidence could be just a matter of hours.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James Winnefeld, Jr. were to lay out an unclassified case to the lawmakers by conference call.

The debate recalled the fraught arguments in the runup to the war in Iraq, notably then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s dramatic (but ultimately exaggerated) presentation at the United Nations.

The New York Times, citing unnamed American officials, reported on Thursday that there was “no smoking gun” directly tying Assad to the attacks. That followed a Foreign Policy report on Tuesday citing American intelligence officials as saying that communications intercepts leave no doubt that the Syrian military used chemical weapons — but cast doubt on how high up the chain of command the decision was made.

On Wednesday, the State Department bluntly said it doesn’t matter whether Assad gave the order.

“The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership, even if command and control — he’s not the one that pushes the button or said, ‘Go,’ on this,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

But that standard of guilt might come as a surprise to critics of American military actions like the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal or, more recently, the epidemic of sexual assault or the widely reported civilian deaths from American drone strikes.

Publicly, at least, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and others have kept any doubts or caveats about the intelligence to themselves. In a PBS NewsHour interview that aired on Wednesday, Obama said, "we have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out." Biden, in a speech to the American Legion on Tuesday declared that "there is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime."