White House officials suggested “frustration” as a motive behind the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, noting that the 12 neighborhoods targeted by the attack were among those that the regime had failed to clear of opposition forces, “despite the fact that they had deployed nearly all of their conventional weapon systems,” according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings.
The official called the regime’s failure to clear the area “certainly a motivation for the regime” and said the intelligence community has found in the past that “chemical weapons are introduced in order to break that type of stalemate.”
While international experts generally agree that some form of chemical attack occurred that day in the Ghouta area, and likely on a smaller scale in previous incidents, there are still questions about the strength of the U.S. evidence, and whether it clearly shows regime culpability.
For example, the assessment of the Aug. 21 attack in Ghouta was not based on any physiological samples, according to a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss a sensitive issue. The official explained that such samples weren’t included because of “how shortly ago this attack took place.”
A Syrian Army unit likely did use the chemical weapons, but that assessment is on the balance of probability, not the facts as they have been presented so far in U.S. and British intelligence reports, said Richard Guthrie, the former leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“We’re not seeing what I would feel would be good enough evidence that would convince a jury in a court of law,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie is among the many chemical weapons specialists calling on the United States to delay punitive action pending the release of findings from U.N. inspectors who just wrapped up an investigation in Syria and were en route to New York to begin a reconstruction of the events at Ghouta. The inspection team’s mandate didn’t extend to determining culpability for the attack.
The United States already has dismissed the U.N. as an avenue for action on Syria because any resolutions are certain to be blocked by Assad ally Russia, which holds veto power on the Security Council.
“We don’t want the world to be paralyzed,” Obama said. “Part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.”
Another point of dispute is the Ghouta death toll, with a wide gap between the tally put forth by the administration and the figures compiled by Syrian opposition groups, British intelligence and international medical workers.
In the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence report that was released Friday, the death toll is listed at 1,429 – including 426 children – and the only attribution given is “a preliminary U.S. government assessment.”
Only a day before, Britain’s joint intelligence committee released a report on the Ghouta attack that confirmed just 350 fatalities, a number more in line with the accounts of other groups such as the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally considered the most authoritative chronicler of casualties in the civil war.