WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts this week to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assad’s regime.
The case that Secretary of State John Kerry laid out Friday included claims that were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical-weapons experts to accept at face value.
After the false weapons claims preceding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the threshold for evidence to support intervention is high. And while there is little dispute that a chemical agent was used in an Aug. 21 attack outside of Damascus — and probably on a smaller scale before that — there are calls from many quarters for independent, scientific evidence to support the U.S. narrative that the Assad regime used sarin gas in an operation that killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
Some of the U.S. points that are in question:
• The Obama administration dismissed the value of a U.N. inspection team’s work by saying that the investigators arrived too late for the findings to be credible and would not provide any information that the United State didn’t already have.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq countered that it was “rare” for such an investigation to begin within such a short time and that “the passage of such few days does not affect the opportunities to collect valuable samples,” according to the U.N.’s website. For example, Haq said, sarin can be detected in biomedical samples for months after its use.
The U.S. claims that sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, citing a positive test on first responders’ hair and blood — samples “that were provided to the United States,” Kerry said on television Sunday without elaboration on the collection methods.
Experts say that while evidence deteriorates over time, it’s simply untrue that there wouldn’t be any value in an investigation five days after an alleged attack. As a New York Times report noted, two human-rights groups dispatched a forensics team to northern Iraq in 1992 and found trace evidence of sarin as well as mustard gas four years after a chemical attack.
• Another point of dispute is the death toll from the alleged attacks on Aug. 21. Neither Kerry’s remarks nor the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence he referred to explained how the United States reached a tally of 1,429, including 426 children. The only attribution was “a preliminary government assessment.”
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who is now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, took aim at the death toll discrepancies in an essay published Sunday on the organization’s website.
He criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429, and noted that the number didn’t agree with either the British assessment of “at least 350 fatalities” or other Syrian opposition sources, namely the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has confirmed at least 322.
“President Obama was then forced to round off the number at ‘well over 1,000 people’ — creating a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts,” Cordesman wrote. He added that this was reminiscent of “the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary [Colin] Powell’s speech to the U.N. on Iraq in 2003.”
An unclassified version of a French intelligence report on Syria that was released Monday hardly cleared things up. France confirmed only 281 fatalities, though it more broadly agreed with the United States that the regime had used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack.
• Another eyebrow-raising administration claim was that U.S. intelligence had “collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” that showed the regime preparing for an attack three days before the event. The U.S. assessment says regime personnel were in an area known to be used to “mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” and that regime forces prepared for the Aug. 21 attack by putting on gas masks.
That claim raises two questions: Why didn’t the U.S. warn the rebels about the impending attack and save hundreds of lives? And why did the administration keep mum about the suspicious activity when on at least one previous occasion U.S. officials raised an international fuss when they observed similar actions?
On Dec. 3, 2012, after U.S. officials said they detected Syria mixing ingredients for chemical weapons, President Barack Obama repeated his warning to Assad that the use of such arms would be an unacceptable breach of the red line he had imposed that summer. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in, and the United Nations withdrew all nonessential staff from Syria.
Last month’s suspicious activity, however, was not raised publicly until after the deadly attack. And Syrian opposition figures say the rebels were not warned in advance so they could protect civilians in the area.
“When I read the administration’s memo, it was very compelling, but they knew three days before the attack and never alerted anyone in the area,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian opposition activist who runs the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Everyone was watching this evidence but didn’t take any action?”
Among chemical-weapons experts and other analysts who have closely studied the Syrian battlefield, the main reservation about the U.S. claims is that they have no understanding of the methodology behind the intelligence-gathering. They say that the evidence presented points to the use of some type of chemical agent, but that there are still questions about how the evidence was collected, the integrity of the chain of custody of such samples, and which laboratories were involved.
Eliot Higgins, a British chronicler of the Syrian civil war who writes the Brown Moses blog, a widely cited repository of information on the weapons observed on the Syrian battlefield, wrote a detailed post Monday listing photographs and videos that seem to support U.S. claims that the Assad regime has possession of munitions that could be used to deliver chemical weapons. But he would not make the leap.
On the blog, Higgins asked: “How do we know these are chemical weapons? That’s the thing, we don’t. As I’ve said all along, these are munitions linked to alleged chemical attacks, not chemical munitions used in chemical attacks. It’s ultimately up to the U.N. to confirm if chemical weapons were used.”
Holes in the case already have allowed Russia to dismiss the U.S. evidence as “inconclusive,” with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying in a speech Monday that Moscow was shown “some sketches, but there was nothing concrete, no geographical coordinates, or details and no proof the test was done by professionals,” according to the state-backed RT news agency.
“When we ask for further clarification, we receive the following response: ‘You are aware that this is classified information, therefore we cannot show it to you,’ ” Lavrov said. “So there are still no facts.”
Lavrov’s remarks signaled that Russia, one of the last remaining allies of Assad, was nowhere close to being convinced enough to end its repeated blocking of U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting the regime.
But there is also skepticism among nations friendly to the United States, such as Jordan, which declined to endorse a strike against Syria until it studies the U.N. chemical-weapons investigation’s findings, and the United Kingdom, where Parliament voted against intervention even before the U.S. released an intelligence assessment that contradicted one released a day before by British authorities.
It is unclear how big a factor the evidence was in Parliament’s decision; there is also a high degree of wariness of any U.S.-led intervention after the Iraq experience.
The U.S. did get a boost Monday from the commander of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told a news conference he had seen “concrete information” that convinced him of the Assad regime’s responsibility for an apparent chemical attack that killed hundreds of people in August.
Rasmussen said it would send a “dangerous signal to dictators” if the world did not respond, but he left it up to NATO nations to decide their own responses, and did not advocate action beyond protecting member state Turkey, which borders Syria.
U.S. allies across the Arab world and Europe have said they prefer delaying potential military strikes until after the U.N. inspection team releases its findings. The U.N. mandate is to determine whether chemical weapons were used, but not to assign responsibility for who used them. U.N. officials have said they are trying to expedite the inspection team’s work while protecting the integrity of the process.
McClatchy reporters Jonathan Landay in Amman, Jordan, and Matthew Schofield in Berlin, and special correspondent Mitchell Prothero in Beirut contributed to this report.