NEW YORK – Ever since the White House unveiled a series of findings on Thursday
that chemical weapons have been used in Syria’s civil war on at least two
occasions, Western officials have been acknowledging that suspicions of their
use took root in December.
After claims first surfaced of a chemical
attack on December 23 in Homs, one source described a strongly worded exchange
between Assad regime officials and Russian diplomats, with the latter persuaded
by Western powers that such an attack would broach a red line that, if crossed,
would preclude even Russia from stopping an escalation of American
Western officials believed in January that Syrian President
Bashar Assad “got the message” after feeling sincere international pressure,
Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said at the time.
diplomatic success proved short-lived, as reports surfaced less than two months
later of additional small-scale chemical attacks.The Jerusalem Post
learned that, in support of written pleas sent by Britain and France to UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice met in
private with Ban to issue a formal request from the Obama administration for an
investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria, based on “credible
evidence” acquired by US intelligence agencies.
That meeting took place
on March 20. The secretary-general announced an investigation the following
One former White House official said the intelligence roll-out
reminded him of the nerves exhibited by the CIA in 2007, when concerned Israelis
approached the Bush administration to discuss how to address a suspected
nuclear facility under construction in eastern Syria.
intelligence agencies agreed that this was a nuclear reactor, but they couldn’t
definitively prove it was part of a larger nuclear program,” the official
Ever since Iraq, spooked US officials have qualified their
intelligence assessments submitted to the Oval Office in tiers of certainty:
low, medium or high confidence. How information earns higher confidence has
become a matter of politics within the intelligence community.
have one out: They can hope the amount of attention given to this [intelligence
report] is sufficient to deter Assad from doing it again,” said Elliott Abrams,
a former senior diplomat in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
“The question is: Is it really an intel problem, or is the administration
trying to hide or politicize the intel?”
On a conference call with reporters
after the announcement, one White House official said the president sought to
prove the “chain of custody” of the chemicals used – not just the fact that they
were indeed released, but who released them, who made them and where they had
But without unfettered access to Syrian stockpiles as a point
of reference, that chain of custody is impossible for investigators to prove,
said Ray Zilinskas, director of the Biological Weapons Nonproliferation
Program at Middlebury College’s Monterey Institute of International Studies in
“The rebels don’t have the capabilities themselves to produce complex chemicals such as sarin,” which is what was found by the Americans,
Zilinskas said. “But they do have the ability to acquire organophosphorus
pesticides, which produces a lot of similar symptoms,” including miosis
(excessive constriction of the pupils) and foaming at the mouth.
Meselson, co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons, agreed. He also noted that sarin has a shelf life of less than two
years – unless very purely made – implying that the sarin used in the attacks
was likely mixed by the Assad government after the civil war started in March
To test for sarin, intelligence agencies would have to acquire
either soil samples or samples of tissue, blood, urine or hair from humans or
animals present during the chemical release. While the effects of less potent
gases such as mustard would linger, sarin’s volatility makes it difficult to
detect more than 10 days after an attack.
Western intelligence officials
therefore fear that an extensive, detailed report of findings would reveal
their hand to the Assad government, possibly compromising agents or allies on
the ground who were able to acquire evidence quickly.
Speaking to the
, Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren said intelligence work on Syria’s
chemical weapons between Israel and the US – and in coordination with other
Middle Eastern powers – is “intimate,” but that Israel’s strategic “red line”
is different than the one oft-repeated by the American president since last
“Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu has stated that Israel’s red
line is any attempt by Syria to transfer chemical or other game-changing weapons
to Hezbollah,” Oren said. “That is our red line, and we stand by it.
are not pressuring, urging or even suggesting that the United States should
take military action in Syria,” the ambassador continued. “All we have stated
is that if a decision were to be made to provide weapons to rebels, those who
receive them should be closely vetted.”
Two days before the White House
acknowledgment, and two days after meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck
Hagel in Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon openly cited instances of
chemical weapons use in Syria.
Hagel told journalists the announcement
caught him by surprise and that the US was still searching for hard proof in
“If the Israelis are going to force the president’s
hand, they don’t want to waste it on this,” said Daniel Byman, director of
research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings
Institution. “But certainly, the Israelis put this back on the
“It’s rare that you get the perfect intelligence,” Byman added,
“or the smoking gun that you need, as we saw painfully in Iraq.”
pressure from both sides of the aisle in Congress to match his words with deeds,
US President Barack Obama reiterated his stance on Friday after meeting with
King Abdullah II of Jordan: Chemical weapons were a “game changer,”
and the US
would have to respond – in one way or another.
Foreign affairs experts,
ranking congressmen and Senate Intelligence Committee members have all
agreed: strategically, the administration has given itself little
“It’s not reasonable to seek perfect certainty – that becomes an
excuse for inaction.
And that worries me not about Syria, but about
Iran,” Abrams said. “If we do nothing, the Iranians are going to draw the
conclusion that this language means nothing.”