Jeffrey LewisDisappointing Syria Documents

We now have unclassified fact sheets from the White House and the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in the United Kingdom.

These guys don’t get it.

Let me be clear: I think a Syrian military unit most likely used chemical weapons in support of an offensive to retake a portion of the Damascus suburbs.  I also support a one-off military strike of limited duration to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and to punish the unit or units responsible, as well as the regime as a whole.

These documents, however, do not fulfill the democratic responsibility of either the US President or the UK Prime Minister to make a compelling, public case for the use of force.  C’mon people, you can do better than this.

My initial impression is that my government, as well as its counterpart in the United Kingdom, simply  does not understand the widespread public cynicism about the competence and integrity of political leaders and the intelligence community. All one has to do is watch Armando Ianucci’s magnificent film In the Loop to understand the damage done by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps some of this skepticism is unfair.  Well, life is unfair.

As I was reading the JIC letter, and then the White House Fact Sheet, I kept remembering lines from  In The Loop, and its preceding television series The Thick of It.  None of these quotations are remotely safe for work.  The closest one to publishable contains two instances of the most useful English word starting with F and a unfavorable scatalogical comparison in order to make the point that, as intelligence trade craft goes, this is rather closer to David Niven than Sean Connery. (The fact that this is the cleanest choice says something about the Caledonian Mafia — the characters of Malcom Tucker and Jamie McDonald, played by Peter Capaldi and Paul Higgins.  The phrase I like best, about the quality of a speech to be given, is completely unprintable beyond the fragment “is wearing your appendix.”)

The White House Fact Sheet is 1,455 words and a map.  The JIC letter is shorter and, frankly, worse. Both documents exude a sense of smug authority.  Judgements are rendered — “We assess with high confidence that …” or have “concluded that it is highly likely that…” — while alluding to the existence of sources and methods –“…streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence…” or a “limited but growing body of intelligence.”

Some of this is simply how the intelligence community writes for policy makers.  (That’s another conversation for another day.) But as a public case for military action, these documents are terribly disappointing. They suggest that our relevant organs, as it were,  understand neither how little inherent credibility they possess nor the changing expectations of a population that is deluged with information.  This sort of fact sheet might have worked a decade ago in 2003.  Of course, that’s the problem.

There is very little new evidence in either release beyond the compelling circumstantial evidence already available to anyone with internet access and last week’s leak to Noah Shachtman regarding an intercepted communication.

As best I can tell, there are new assertions that SSRC (aka CERS) personnel prepared chemical weapons over the course of three days prior to the attack, that Syrian forces conducted a rocket artillery barrage, and that forces were ordered to desist with chemical attacks on the afternoon of the 21st.  These assertions are said to be backed by firm intelligence that must, of course, be protected from scrutiny.  The closest thing to a new, damning detail is the claim of “intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons  were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with inspectors obtaining evidence.”

Compare the US and UK fact sheets to the sort of conversation that is occurring in public. Look, for example, at The Rogue Adventurer, the blog maintained by NR Jenzen-Jones, particularly this post and another. Or look at this analysis by Joe Bermudez on the North Korean units involved in the shelling of Yongpyon Island (and my comments). By contrast, neither the US nor UK document even names the unit or units involved in the massacre.

The pair of documents certainly don’t rise to the gold standard set by Adlai Stevenson.  They fall short, too, of what we will politely call lesser efforts before the same august body. And dumping a heavily readacted 1985 assessment comes off as comic, although perhaps that’s just a coincidence. (There is much more information in various cables compromised by Wikileaks. Try searching “syria ssrc” for a data dump on SSRC procurement practices)

The bottom line is that sentient beings with basic internet access have come to expect much more detailed information to be a click or two away. In fact, they almost certainly believe that there is eve better information behind some firewall. They also think the Situation Room looks likes this, instead of this. To offer these meagre documents is a terrible let down.  When the US or UK government together can barely muster a bit more than 2000 words of vague assertions and a map, real people a disappointed. Just like when they see the situation room.  It’s no wonder Ed Miliband stuck a knife in David Cameron’s back. The JIC Chairman’s letter  was an invitation to do so.

Maybe I’m being to harsh.  I am sure that a lot of good people worked really to hard to get as much information as they did into the public domain.  There are probably a bunch of secrecy trolls who will claim the collective disappointment only strengthens the case for sharing little or no information.  (They are wrong: our elected officials can and must do better.)

Let me close by again stating that I believe Syrian military units murdered more than a thousand people in a brutal chemical weapons attack and that a military response is appropriate.  I also believe that the US and UK governments have overhead images detailing the attack preparations as well as all manner of electronic communications that can document who did what to whom, and that to build the case for action they should release a good bit of that yesterday.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    I just had a comment nuked by my browser crashing, but in brief;

    I’m having problems explaining this to people in other venues.

    A fair number of them don’t believe it was a chemical attack, and a fair number of others do not belive it was the government, thinking it was a rebel joe-job.

    I need evidence which is public, like recordings and photos and the like, which I can use to convince them.

    Soft power erodes like this. We have to convince more of the US and UK and European and world population of what happened here. We can intervene anyways, but without convincing the bulk of the populace it’s not a setup, we lose something significant in doing it.

    Unless the sources are Humint, the Syrians have to know we have them under close watch, and it seems likely we wouldn’t burn any sources or methods which are a huge surprise to their counterintel folks (not knowing the specifics, this is a guess / assertion, but if it’s not true I would be surprised). Just give us the raw data.

  2. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Thank you for framing the argument for better public evidence. After hearing Secretary Kerry’s ringing oratory I was ready for some hard facts, but only found assertions of intelligence assessment at some level of belief, and anyone not lacking spatial cognitive functions can draw a map. Perhaps after the fiasco of Iraq, our intelligence officials are gun-shy of asserting facts. RT of course roasted the evidence in similar terms, but they might have a negative bias
    Belief I reserve for God, and withhold from fallible officials. So I can only pray that they know what they’re doing intervening in what has become a brutal sectarian civil war.

    At a minimum Congress has a duty to convene and debate before our names are put to delivered ordinance, and the Nobel committee must be swallowing hard.

  3. Rob Goldston (History)

    There is a clear statement in the U.S. document that says the U.S. Intelligence Community does not have confirmation that the “Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack.” It reads, “Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation. We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”

    • rwendland (History)

      Interesting the USIC assessment does not use “high confidence” for the nerve gas assessment: “We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack.” I assume that is deliberate, and indicates the USIC doesn’t have any clear blood/tissue sample evidence yet.

      I don’t know a lot about chemical weapons. If it wasn’t a nerve agent, what else is consistant with the videos? An asphyxiating agent like phosgene or chlorine?

    • John Schilling (History)

      A group of dissident Syrians with some acting talent, briefed on what they need to say and do in front of a camera to get NATO to bomb the regime for them? Corpses killed by blast overpressure, artfully lined up and draped under blankets while a “doctor” describes symptoms of nerve gas exposure?

      Seems unlikely to me. But not impossible, and it seems nearly certain that opponents of US retaliation will be eager to entertain such a scenario. We need the samples, and we need an analysis by someone who doesn’t work for Barack Obama. Shouldn’t be too hard to obtain.

  4. Daryl Kimball (History)


    I think you are being too harsh. Yes, there is more detail that could have been provided to give the public something closer to the “CIS-like” forensic evidence they expect … like the infrared satellite images that show where and when the rockets were fired and where they landed to produce the Sarin gas poisoning symptoms that were apparent in numerous videos and eyewitness accounts. But this IC assessment is about as air-tight as its gets about an event in a war zone a week later. The tough question is what can and must be done to deter Assad from doing it again.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Daryl – it’s not the vagueness of the assessment. It’s the lack of specific evidence (photos, recordings, etc).

      People “out there” do not trust US intelligence and its conclusions.

      Few of them distrust the media reports and uploaded films of the dead and dying, the existence of an event seems agreed.

      But the US assertion it was the government not the rebels is being disbelieved, because what people are thinking of is Iraq and Snowden and the like, and it’s playing to skeptics’ sense of a con job by us as an excuse for another war of choice.

      We need the raw intel. Recordings and photos snd the like.

    • Eve (History)

      As one who studied the effects of nerve agents at a biochemical level during undergrad, what more do you need to see, apart from the YouTube and public news footage? It’s abhorrent that someone or group has used chemical weapons and this has to be investigated. There appears to be some

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Eve –

      *I* don’t need to see anything; I have no reasonable doubts as to what happened.

      Many others see the IC failures wrt Iraq WMD (I am not blaming in this, I made the same misjudgements) and the Snowden and Manning affairs, distrust over the NSA, the Drone strikes, war weariness, and they disbelieve “a summary conclusion”. Mostly as to who is at fault; few are doubting there was some gas attack.

    • Magpie (History)

      The question is: who did it? It’s entirely within the realms of possibility that the rebels did it, intentionally or otherwise. It’s also possible it was a rogue element in Syria’s own forces, not authorised by Assad And Friends. Not too many people are denying there was use of Sarin (some, but not too many). What people (Russia in particular) are asking is: what’s the proof that Syria did it?

      As Russia has said: why on earth would Assad’s mob fire chemical weapons NOW? They must have known they’d be busted. Why would they ask for a strike?

      (And I think it’s pretty clear they DID, and I also think the possible answers to those questions are very interesting).

      Look, everyone on This Our Planet Earth is aware that satellites can take pikshures of stuff. It’s not a state secret to admit that, and show imagery of the preparations we’ve heard of. That ALONE would be enough to give this whole thing all the legitimacy the US needs. They’ve admitted to intercepting certain communications – so where’s the harm in releasing them? The Syrians have enough to know what got intercepted, surely. What more harm can a declassification of that intercept possibly do now?

  5. rwendland (History)

    It is quite possible more detail, as available at the moment, would raise as many questions as it answers. So maybe the IC is wary of that.

    The very well connected BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner, made an interesting report last night. He got a recently retired intelligence manager, formerly an analyst at the UK Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre, on camera. He said the kind of rocket in the videos has “around about 9.5 km” range, and would probably have been fired from strong military areas on the west of Damascas, roughly over the city, to Ghouta on the east of the city.

    That kind of detail raises new questions, such as wondering if the govt would really authorise chemical weapons to be fired over Damascas. More detail may not be more convincing.

    If you want to see the piece, @07:15 in:

  6. Rob Goldston (History)

    I think the real issue is whether this was an error by an incompetent commander or a deliberate attempt by the Syrian Government to see how far they could go. This is what our intelligence can’t (yet?) tell us.

    • Magpie (History)

      The question of why is very relevant.

      It seems very likely that it was Assad’s chain of command that did it (though by no means certain). So… why?

      I like to assume people aren’t complete idiots. If they’re not idiots, what was their reasoning? They knew they wouldn’t get away with it. They knew they’d receive a strike.

      From the response, it would seem Russia didn’t mind so much. From the response, it would seem the US is dragging its feet and trying to go for the most minimal of retaliation (having backed themselves into a corner by pre-promising retaliation against the use of chemical weapons). Asking Congress to authorise something that US Presidents don’t ask Congress to authorise? Asking Congress to authorise something the President has *already promised to do*? Releasing a pretty poor case for a strike (while maintaining enough moral high-ground to keep the option)?

      The US doesn’t actually want to do this, but they know they have to. They’re engaging in damage mitigation.

      This is, as it has been all century so far, Russia vs the US. The Third Cold War hasn’t been well recognised because everyone has been caught up with the aberration, fire and noise, of Sunni Terrorism and the Iraq own-goal. But this is every bit as intense as it was in the Soviet day. In this case, Russia has gained a tactical advantage: the US promised to respond to a chemical attack. But any response will permit Russia to increase support for Assad. The greater the response, the more support Russia can throw in. The less the response, the weaker the US will appear, the less its threats will be considered valid.

      In this game of chess, Russia has forked the US. They *want* to draw the US further into this conflict, and they *want* to have justification for additional support to Assad. They *want* potential allies and factions throughout the area of conflict (Middle-East, North Africa, the Caucasus) to devalue the US as an ally.

      The US probably should have seen this coming – though maybe they did. Maybe their promises to curb-stomp Assad if he used chemical weapons was a calculated risk that, in this case, failed. But I suspect they just weren’t thinking of it in the right terms.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Does this really matter?

      A government is responsible for the actions of its military officers; that’s fairly explicitly part of the definition of “officer”. And I haven’t heard of any Syrian generals being executed in Damascus lately.

      So maybe Assad didn’t order any of his generals to use nerve gas against civilians. Maybe he just stashed his nerve gas where random Syrian generals could get at it, ordered them “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Rebel to Live”, and is covering for the ones who used the former to implement the latter.

      The two are equally unacceptable, and perhaps need to be deterred/punished equally. No regime will have any trouble finding generals who don’t need explicit orders gas their enemies, who understand a quiet nod and a wink accompanies any official prohibition against chemical warfare. And no regime will be deterred by threat of retribution against the scapegoat generals alone, to be hypothetically delivered when the ICC is able to exercise practical jurisdiction.

      We need to be sure that nerve gas was actually used by elements of the Syrian Army, and in the post-Iraq era we need to make the raw data supporting that assessment public. But exactly how the Syrian chain of command arranged this outcome, is perhaps not so important. Depriving the Syrian army of its means of delivering chemical weapons, to the greatest practical extent, is imperative in either case.

    • Cameron (History)

      We executed Yamashita for a more tenuous link between commander and crime committed than that between Assad and whoever pushed the launch button.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      The conviction of Yamashita is an extremely bad and dangerous precedent. The historical record, and as I recall the trial record, show that General Yamashita actively obstructed the commission of war crimes by Naval Troops during the battle of Manila, at considerable cost to his own men. The Tokyo War Crimes trials fell far short of the Nuremberg trials by any measure, and the Nuremberg protocols themselves are problematic for our conduct in the modern age

    • Cameron (History)

      I’m not sure where I stand on the ultimate precident, but it should be noted that he was convicted not at the Tokyo trials, but at a general court martial seperate from them.

      That the decision was fueled by racism, and that the law is unevenly applied seems obvious to me, but I think that there is a point that the commander is ultimately responsible for his troops actions. That he was unable to effect control because of the invasion was I think a mitigation that was whitewashed, but….

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      No good deed goes unpunished.

      I thought a while about whether the following point is relevant, and I think it is:
      The Japanese “Empire” outside of Japan was essentially two empires, one run by the navy and one by the army. Yamashita received absolutely no obedience or compliance from Naval Troops.

      I don’t know enough about Syria and it’s inner workings to know if their “government” is all of one piece.

  7. MK (History)

    RE a one-off strike: what if CW use continues, sooner or later?

  8. Cthippo (History)

    I’m reminded of the other intel question from Syria, specifically al Kibar.

    The Israelis said they blew up a Syrian reactor and a lot of us went “uh huh, sure you did”, and then the US intelligence community said, “yeah, they did and here’s the evidence”. That evidence was pretty compelling, and despite being presented ex post facto, certainly made the case.

    I’m not sure how playing a tape of a Syrian general ordering the strike would be more damaging to sources and methods than telling people that such a tape exists.

    On the larger scale, the US really needs to figure out what outcome we want in Syria and start working towards it. We’re on the cusp of taking action without there having any clear statement of what the desired outcome of that action is, and that scares me.

  9. Bradley Laing (History)

    PARIS — France will soon declassify secret defense documents detailing Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons in defiance of international conventions, a government source said Sunday

    –“Then [Lt. Col. Charles M. Stanton] turned toward the tomb, raised his arm, and dramatically exclaimed, “Lafayette, nous ici!” (Lafayette, we are here!).”

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    —And, of course, if the French documents can justify a US airstrike on Syria,then someone French will have to turn towards Stanton’s grave and say “Stanton, we are here!”

  11. Gunnar (History)

    In this whole debate I see arguments that are located on two levels being mashed up

    1. Justification
    Reasons to consider a military strike are justified with various arguments:
    a) The use of CW has to be punished. Punishment shall have an effect on the delinquent. It, however, questionable if the principle of punishment will work with Assad. Rational behavior dos not belong to the conditions of employment for dictators. More than that the self authorization of one or more (western) states may be seen as illegitimate act of violence – not only by Assad and the members of his regime, but also by larger parts of the civil society in Syria. And they would be right.

    Clearly, CW use is a horrific breach of international law. However, legitimate reactions necessarily have to meet requirements of international law themselves. Otherwise they would be vulnerable for substantiated criticism. Outside the US people don’t trust the model of fair and heroic outlaws taking revenge for mass murderers.

    Furthermore, even limited strikes will likely kill innocents. Hence, punishment will punish non-involved persons and give Assad stronger arguments to resist external influence, and not to participate in diplomatic talks.

    b) Credibility of the “red lines” statement
    This depends on the reactions on crossing red lines. International law foresees the installation of international courts to judge war criminals. It might take a long time until it comes to a trial, but police force coming along with the hangman without legal basis cannot win international support.

    c) Do something to stop doing nothing
    From a realist standpoint it might make more sense not to dissolve the situation. And the official aim of a strike would not be to change balances in the conflict. However, the “Responsibility to protect” argument pops up all the time. Indeed, the main goal has to be to stop the conflict, including CW use, but also the conventional killing and the displacement of people. A military strike would, however, not support this goal. Only diplomatic negotiations involving Russia, China and Iran (ooohh!) could do this – don’t ask me, however, whom to invite from the Syrian opposition.

    2. The aftermath of a possible strike
    a) Weakening of the Assad regime’s capabilities to secure the CW stocks.
    The worst effect of a strike would be, if Assad’s regime would lose control over CW stockpiles. It is terrible to have the agents in the hands of a regime that (likely) uses them (against civilians). But many groups of the opposing fighters might have as few scruples to use them. More than that, Assad has no interests in foreign countries – but Al Qaeda has!

    b) Strenghtening the radicals
    A strike might be seen as violation of the humanitarian rights by secular and religious persons. These people might decide to strengthen either the regime or the religious radicals in the opposition.

    c) Further CW use to demonstrate unaffectedness
    The regime (be it Assad himself, his brother or whom soever) might decide to demonstrate its unaffectedness by using CW again.

    d) Weaken the role of international law also for future conflicts.
    Strikes would demonstrate that “the West” doesn’t care for the rules of international law when “it” feels that the implementation of international law would take too long or would require give-aways for “partners” as Russia or China. Furthermore, at least we have now a regime to be charged for its behavior, and a party that could be

    e) Weaken the role of the UN
    Not waiting for the results of the UN investigators (who had not the mandate to identify the offender, but might though provide valuable information) is debasing this kind of mechanism, also for future events.

    Probably I forgot to mention the most important arguments, but I just quickly wanted to put my 2 ct in.

  12. Andy (History)

    No doubt the intelligence community is not a good communicator when it comes to the public and I agree with Jeffrey that the evidence here is unlikely to convince the average citizen who is not versed in “intel speak.” Unfortunately that’s a reality that I don’t see changing anytime soon.

    It doesn’t help when just about everyone is looking at this through the prism of Iraq WMD which is a case with only superficial similarity to the intelligence question here.

    As for why more information wasn’t released, there are a couple reasons:

    1. Some might come from foreign governments who will not authorize release. Israel is in the news, but they aren’t the only country with access and sources in Syria.

    2. If this is, indeed, a very limited strike designed to do little more than send a message and give the regime a small punch in the nose, then the President and IC have to ask if the compromise of sources and methods is worth such a limited effort. Obviously, they decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I agree and IMO it does not make sense to blow access to information on Syria in a quixotic quest to convince the small group of people who are actually interested in the details (me included). Those sources will be needed to continue monitoring Syria, including its CW program. This strike is one operation, compromising a source of information is forever.

  13. Stephen (History)

    I don’t understand a tactical benefit for CW use that outweighs the huge strategic cost.

    Imagine you’re a Syrian general sitting at the weekly status meeting. Our general raises his hand and says:

    “How about we use nerve agent?”

    “Our plan is to maximise its value by only using it in one suburb because, well, just because.”

    “No, we won’t equip our occupying troops with CW suits – they’ll be fine as they are.”

    “Oh by the way, the suburb is in Damascus – our capital city of 1.7m people. In fact, you’ve probably got extended family in the area.”

    “I’m reasonably sure the superpowers will never find out – they’re probably not even watching, and its not as if the rebels have ever used video or social media at all.”

    “And anyway, its not as if any superpowers have a history of reacting badly to CW use.”

    “So, what do you say? Shall we do it?”


    • Cameron (History)

      I think they’re not sure that there will be a huge strategic cost. If what happens is a limited airstrike from the US and France (maybe even the UK) then you’ve had a year to prep for something like that anyway.

      You’ve had minor CW attacks leading up to this, so the line is blurred a bit, and you don’t think that you’ll end up with massive retaliation for any use period full stop. So ramp it up a bit more.

      And if the strikes don’t disable you, you can use the thread of CW to turn neighborhoods against the rebels there and force the rebels to do more to protect themselves from this.

      And if it’s a non-persistent nerve agent, you can move into the neighborhood and decon.

      So there is the potentially a reason to do this.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think its more like this.

      “We need to clear the rebels out of these suburbs.”

      “Let’s gas them.”

      “Good thing we bought those CW suits from the North Koreans.”

      “If we gas them in the wee hours when there is no wind, the gas won’t blow off the target.”

      “You think the Americans will do anything about it?”

      “You mean send a sternly worded letter like they did to Qadhafi after he gassed his enemies in Chad and Sudan, or Saddam after Halabja?”

      “Well, Obama said it was a ‘red line.'”

      “Worst case scenario is 72 hours of cruise missile strikes. I’d take that in exchange for clearing the rebels out of Damascus.”

  14. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Most of those who are unconvinced that a CW attack took place, that the Syrian military did it, or that Assad gave the order, will not be convinced by any amount of detail offered by the US government. If you have ever wasted half an hour trying to talk sense to any seriously committed conspiracy theorist, you should know that. In this case, even normally sane peace advocates are grasping at fringe claims and wild theories to explain away the evidence before their eyes. Few of them would be convinced by sigint transcripts or satellite photos.

    I was one of the first Americans to begin campaigning in opposition to the Iraq invasion, because I knew that the Bush gang wanted it, would do it, and would lie to justify it. As the lies came out, we knew they were contrary to well-established facts. But we saw the entire power structure, en masse, follow the leaders and echo their drumbeat for war. None of that applies now. Obama obviously didn’t want this, wasn’t ready for it, hasn’t spent a year campaigning for it, and perhaps consequently, the media, Congress and public aren’t lining up to support it. As for facts, the videos and first-hand reports speak for themselves. Yet a military response is still by no means certain. Half of Democrats will vote No because they or their constituents are antiwar, and half of Republicans will vote No just to stick it to Obama. Whether either group could care less about Syrians remains unclear.

    The proper question isn’t whether the Syrian regime used Sarin on a sleeping population, killing more than 1,000. The proper question is what the US should or shouldn’t do about it. A “quick military strike” is unlikely to make things better. Doing nothing is unlikely to make things better. I don’t know what would make things better.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Mark wrote:
      The proper question isn’t whether the Syrian regime used Sarin on a sleeping population, killing more than 1,000. The proper question is what the US should or shouldn’t do about it. A “quick military strike” is unlikely to make things better. Doing nothing is unlikely to make things better. I don’t know what would make things better.

      Thank you, Mark.

      I disagree with the ‘A “quick military strike” is unlikely to make things better.’, however that is a matter worthy of debate, and you have identified the crux of the policy question here.

      The question of convincing the die-hard skeptics that something really happened is still real, but ultimately a distraction for the decision of “What is the best way forwards, or at least the least-bad way forwards?”.

  15. Stephen (History)

    Anyone able to recommend a wonkish blog populated by CW experts?

    I’m having trouble finding anyone (other than the usual suspects) capable of concluding that the video shows use of militarised nerve agent.

    What I’m seeing is just run-of-the-mill exposure to industrial chemicals rather than militarised CW.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I am nothing like a full time CW expert, but…

      There are square kilometers of area distributed around the city which suffered some effect; whatever it was was not a point release or accident.

      The effects are spot on for Sarin; the foaming at the mouth, characteristic pinpoint pupils, onset of twitching which spreads to convulsions and death over a period of minutes to an hour depending on dosage. I can’t think of any industrial chemical which exactly mimics those symptoms, though the range of industrial chemicals and their toxic effects is pretty amazing when examined in depth.

      The positive blood and hair tests and residue tests for Sarin are sort of harder to avoid, too.

      If you’re thinking it was some sort of horrible industrial chemical accident, I don’t think that’s credible based on what I know off the top of my head.

    • Eve (History)

      Pinball eyes is another very clear symptom that was manifested in many individuals filmed in the aftermath. Without trace analysis, one could also conclude an agent like tabun could also have been used judged on the grab bag of symptoms, but so far only one agent sarin has been positively confirmed

  16. Stephen (History)

    I don’t care in any meaningful way – I don’t have any skin in the game and won’t lose sleep fi any number of unknown children killed. And that’s regardless of the uniform being worn by the murderer.

    I am however a fan of critical thinking, and that’s where this doesn’t stack up. It just doesn’t make sense for any sophisticated military to use CW in the adhoc manner being reported.

    If a sophisticated military was planning to engage in CW, wouldn’t it have planned to achieve strategically significant gains in return for the obvious risks? Yet we’re not seeing any sign that the Syrian army sought to capitalise on the alleged release of the gas – ie no massing of troops prior to release, no reports of troop movements post-release for occupying the vacated positions etc.

    • John Schilling (History)

      So, possibly the allegation that it was the Dastardly Germans who introduced chemical warfare to the modern world in 1915 is a Big Lie. Must have been a French propaganda operation; when in doubt, always blame the French. After all, the German army didn’t mass troops prior to the Second Battle of Ypres, nor was there any attempt to occupy the vacated positions.

      Or possibly even sophisticated armies aren’t as universally efficient as you imagine they must be in their use of chemical weapons. And perhaps after nearly two years of civil war, the Syrian Army isn’t really all that sophisticated any more.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Thank you.

  17. j_kies (History)

    Even sophisticated militaries make mistakes; if the intent was to drop some HE capped artillery rockets onto the rebels, poor accounting of ‘which are which’ could explain using the wrong ordnance. (I recall an airforce being unaware of flying war reserve nuclear missiles on the wing of a bomber.) If you couple a mistake with egos that resist admitting error (justification for a certain invasion comes to mind) the guys that goofed could plausibly claim credit for a deliberate attack. Failure to exploit the events would be expected in that case. Punishment for poor logistics and poor command surety is still called for and appropriate regardless of the weapons used.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Or, it could have been a deliberate chemical bombarment that was supposed to be followed up with an assault and occupation, but the troops whose job was to lob rockets full of Sarin at a target ten miles away said, “Sir, Yes Sir!”, and the ones ordered to show up in person an hour later had a more colorful response to their orders.

      Or the “inefficiency” was the unavoidable result of arranging the CBW command structure to preserve plausible deniabilty in case of war-crimes trials, in a way that a carefully orchestrated plan of operations would undercut. Or the Syrians screwed up in any of a dozen different ways. Or they accomplished exactly what they wanted to; casualties, terror, and international FUD.

      The evidence that the Syrian army launched chemical weapons against its enemies, is important. The details of their battle plan are not, and even the worst possible battle plan is not evidence that the battle did not occur.

  18. Scott Monje (History)

    In comparing the intelligence on Iraq and Syria (leaving aside the question of what the appropriate response should be), we should keep in mind that it is far easier to verify the presence of a weapon that is actively and openly being used than it is to verify the absence of something that is being hidden (or doesn’t exist, as the case may be).

  19. jeannick (History)

    The Syrian Government has the means but weak motives
    ( beside sheer bloody mindedness )
    The rebels have the motives but little means
    any third party would lead us into conspiracy-land

    Argument against , the timing ,
    on the first day of work for the UN mandated inspectors
    the location , a few miles from their hotel
    ( raised eyebrows !)
    a rogue local commander seems rather far fetched
    If it is sarin , the stuff is not very stable
    the munitions have to be mixed ,transported and deployed
    probably by specialized troops .
    This is well above the pay grade of a local colonel .

    The rebels could have cooked some stuff.
    but the reported attacks were quite extensive
    that involve a lot of gear and people.

    Washington PR machine went on overdrive with little more than You Tube stuff , then put their feet in it by requesting the evacuation of the inspectors
    for a weekend strike ,without any serious public intel
    the Brits recoiled from such an avalanche , rightly so !

    now with the St Petersburg talk-feast and the eventual UN report , we should be able to get in ten days or so

    1- a time line , it could then be matched with some supposed rockets strikes telemetry (witnesses mentioned no following explosion , could be a dud or a chemical hit)

    2- If the gas was military grade or garage made

    3- the size of the area affected

    from those indices a pretty solid conclusion can be reached

    anyway what does “a shot across the bow ” means really
    in Navy parlance it means the next shot will be with deadly intent.
    does it means a full on war next time ?
    I don’t know and probably nobody else either

  20. Shawn Hughes (History)

    I have a few thoughts not expressed here. First, mmany are supposing the US has solid intelligence capability in the region. How would you expect them to respond if they simply had no answer for what happened?

    Second, no one has posited that this wasn’t an accident. That area is a nonpermissive environment. Given the area, the time, and the lack of a (literal) smoking gun, no one can say that someone wasn’t mixing some mprovised CW and made a mistake.
    The real question should be; who benefits from the obvious world response to a CW attack?
    Lastly, when you get a restricted pesticide applicator’s license, one of the things you have to know about is mitigating exposure to organophosphate based pesticides, and I’ll just leave that hanging.


  21. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Sitting here, catching up on the comments, and absorbing the following clip that is making the rounds of the media–KwcCCd8 Of my dear esteemed “progressive” Senator.

    The argument hasn’t moved a Planck-length since Jeffrey entered this column a week ago. The PTBs know what they know, and we are to take their word for it. Intelligence Assessments with “high confidence” still are not evidence a week later.

  22. Mark Gubrud (History)

    AP did not report that. It’s been circulated by fringe websites and the source is allegedly someone who has done some reporting for AP in the past. If you know anything about how war the major media get stories out of war zones too dangerous for their own manicured pets to venture into, you know how weak a credential that is, even if it isn’t made up.

    If you want to believe this sort of thing, nobody can stop you. Let me just ask you to consider this. Just suppose for a moment that the official story per Kerry, Obama, et al. is the truth. Now, I know you don’t want to believe that, but just suppose for a moment that it might possibly be true. In that case, can you imagine that there would be any possibility that stories like this one would not still appear on websites, originated by the Syrian government or its sympathizers, and promoted by people eager to believe them as an alternative to the grim choice between seeming indifference to the massacre of Syrian children and support for a potentially dangerous military adventure?

  23. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I guess if you delete the comment I’m replying to, you should delete my reply as well. The original comment reiterated reports attributed to a sometime AP stringer that the Ghouta attacks had something to do with Prince Bandar and a gas bottle, with “al Qaeda” figuring in there, too.

  24. Gregory Matteson (History)

    A potentially dangerous military adventure that the American people clearly do not support.

  25. Jeffrey (History)

    I suppose you are right. But I was just wiping out the conspiracy theories …

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