Guy Taylor / The Washington Times & WND.com – 2013-09-12 01:20:45
US Can’t Prove Bashar Assad Approved Chemical Attacks in Syria:
Control of Deadly Weapons in Question
Guy Taylor / The Washington Times
(September 11, 2013) — US intelligence has yet to uncover evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad directly ordered the chemical attacks last month on civilians in a suburb of Damascus, though the consensus inside US agencies and Congress is that members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle likely gave the command, officials tell The Washington Times.
The gap in the intelligence has raised debate in some corners of the wider intelligence community about whether Mr. Assad has full control of his war-weary Army and their arsenal of chemical missiles, which most likely would be treasured by terrorist groups known to be operating in Syria, said officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.
“If there was a rogue general that did it on his own accord, that would be a bigger problem for Assad, because that would imply that he does not have control of his own weapons,” said one senior congressional source familiar with US intelligence assessments on Syria.
Apart from concerns about weapons falling into the hands of such Sunni extremist and al Qaeda-linked groups as the al-Nusra Front, there are also concerns about serious hurdles now likely to lie ahead for the international community trying to assemble a special team to work with Mr. Assad on securing his chemical arsenal.
Some foreign policy insiders, meanwhile, said the lack of specific intelligence about who ordered the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack is the main reason why top Obama administration officials — including the president himself â€” have in recent days carefully assigned blame to “Assad’s regime” rather than the Syrian leader personally.
Officials stressed there is a high degree of confidence that Mr. Assad had previously delegated authority over the use of chemical weapons to senior military commanders within his regime, even if he didn’t directly order the latest attack or know about it in advance.
The “responsibility for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 rests on his shoulders whether he ordered the attack or not,” one US official said, summarizing the assessment of intelligence agencies. “Nobody doubts that Syrian military leaders report to Assad.”
Outside the Obama administration, some analysts with senior-level Middle East and intelligence experience say doubts about control of Mr. Assad’s chemical arsenal do exist and are very real.
“As far as I know, there’s no intelligence that links [Mr. Assad] directly to the operation, so that does raise the question of command and control,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who heads the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In an interview, Mr. Riedel said the question now looms large, particularly since debate around how best to respond to the use of chemical weapons has shifted rapidly from a possible US military strike to a diplomatic effort to get Mr. Assad to give up the weapons.
“The optimistic scenario is that we’re going to now have a UN system put in place to monitor and control Syria’s chemical weapons,” said Mr. Riedel. “If there are questions about who is in control of the weapons, it makes that whole mission harder.”
What’s worse, he said, is that as international pressure mounts on Mr. Assad to comply with international specialists, there could be “Syrian military units and generals who believe keeping chemical weapons is their trump card and key to their survival.”
“Any UN disarmament effort is going to become even more complicated because they’re going to have to use forces to get that general to give it up â€” the generals hide things [and] I can envision in the chaos that’s going on in Syria today, some Syrian general saying, ‘I don’t care what the president says, I don’t care what the minister says, I’ve got to have my insurance policy and it is hanging onto a stash of chemical weapons.'”
While President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have given firm pronouncements blaming the Syrian government for using chemical weapons last month, the administration also has done a rhetorical dance around the question of who actually authorized and carried out the attack.
With the White House appearing to dial back its push for a US military response in the face of resistance from Congress and from other world powers during recent days, some senior administration officials have appeared to acknowledge outright the lack of intelligence directly linking Mr. Assad to the attack.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CNN on Sunday that the administration simply does not have “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” to show Mr. Assad ordered the attack. Instead, Mr. McDonough said the administration relied on the “common-sense test” to more broadly pin the attacks on the “Assad regime.”
Mr. McDonough also suggested the administration was disinterested in the skepticism that such remarks might be triggering. “This is not a court of law,” he said. “And intelligence does not work that way.”
In addressing the nation from the White House Tuesday night, Mr. Obama reiterated a claim that other senior administration officials such as Mr. Kerry have made. “We know the Assad regime was responsible,” Mr. Obama said.
The president used careful language to convey the roots of that conviction. “In the days leading up to Aug. 21, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area they where they mix sarin gas,” he said. “They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.”
Mr. Obama’s remarks were a shade broader than the initial case that he and others laid out two weeks ago when the White House circulated an unclassified version of a report that it had titled the “US Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons.”
The classified report remains secret. But the unclassified version made mention of Mr. Assad by name only once, asserting that he “is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty.”
The document did not delve directly into the possibility that a rogue Syrian general may have used the chemical weapons without Mr. Assad’s approval. It did, however, seem to hedge around the possibility.
“We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21,” the report said. “We 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 the UN inspectors obtaining evidence.”
Mr. Kerry has gone perhaps further than any other administration official in his description of the intelligence.
Appearing in London on Monday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Mr. Kerry said that “the chemical weapons in Syria we have tracked for some period of time now are controlled in a very tight manner by the Assad regime.”
“It is Bashar al-Assad and Maher al-Assad, his brother, and a general who are the three people who have control over the movement and use of chemical weapons,” Mr. Kerry said. “But under any circumstances, the Assad regime is the Assad regime. And the regime issues orders. And we have high-level regime [members] that have been caught giving these instructions and engaging in these preparations with results going directly to President Assad.”
Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC.
Guy Taylor rejoined The Washington Times in 2011 as the State Department correspondent. As a freelance journalist, Taylor’s work was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Fund For Investigative Journalism, and his stories appeared in a variety publications, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to Salon, Reason, Prospect Magazine of London, and the Daily Star of Beirut.
US Military Confirms Rebels Had Sarin
Classified document shows deadly weapon found in home of arrested Islami
WND Exclusive / WND.com
(September 11, 2013) — As part of the Obama administration’s repeated insistence — though without offering proof — that the recent sarin gas attack near Damascus was the work of the Assad regime, the administration has downplayed or denied the possibility that al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels could produce deadly chemical weapons.
However, in a classified document just obtained by WND, the US military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria.
The document says sarin from al-Qaida in Iraq made its way into Turkey and that while some was seized, more could have been used in an attack last March on civilians and Syrian military soldiers in Aleppo.
The document, classified Secret/Noforn — “Not for foreign distribution” — came from the US intelligence community’s National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC, and was made available to WND Tuesday.
It revealed that AQI had produced a “bench-scale” form of sarin in Iraq and then transferred it to Turkey.
A US military source said there were a number of interrogations as well as some clan reports as part of what the document said were “50 general indicators to monitor progress and characterize the state of the ANF/AQI-associated Sarin chemical warfare agent developing effort.”
“This (document) depicts our assessment of the status of effort at its peak — primarily research and procurement activities — when disrupted in late May 2013 with the arrest of several key individuals in Iraq and Turkey,” the document said.
“Future reporting of indicators not previously observed would suggest that the effort continues to advance despite the arrests,” the NGIC document said.
The May 2013 seizure occurred when Turkish security forces discovered a two-kilogram cylinder with sarin gas while searching homes of Syrian militants from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra Front following their initial detention.
The sarin gas was found in the homes of suspected Syrian Islamic radicals detained in the southern provinces of Adana and Mersia.
Some 12 suspected members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested. At the time, they were described by Turkish special anti-terror forces as the “most aggressive and successful arm” of the Syrian rebels.
In the seizure, Turkish anti-terror police also found a cache of weapons, documents and digital data.
At the time of the arrest, the Russians called for a thorough investigation of the detained Syrian militants found in possession of sarin gas.
This seizure followed a chemical weapons attack in March on the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo, Syria. In that attack, some 26 people and Syrian government forces were killed by what was determined to be sarin gas, delivered by a rocket attack.
The Syrian government called for an investigation by the United Nations. Damascus claimed al-Qaida fighters were behind the attack, also alleging that Turkey was involved.
“The rocket came from a place controlled by the terrorists and which is located close to the Turkish territory,” according to a statement from Damascus. “One can assume that the weapon came from Turkey.”
The report of the US intelligence community’s NGIC reinforces a preliminary UN investigation of the attack in Aleppo which said the evidence pointed to Syrian rebels.
It also appears to bolster allegations in a 100-page report on an investigation turned over to the UN by Russia. The report concluded the Syrian rebels — not the Syrian government — had used the nerve agent sarin in the March chemical weapons attack in Aleppo.
While the contents of the report have yet to be released, sources tell WND the documentation indicates that deadly sarin poison gas was manufactured in a Sunni-controlled region of Iraq and then transported to Turkey for use by the Syrian opposition, whose ranks have swelled with members of al-Qaida and affiliated groups.
The documentation that the UN received from the Russians indicated specifically that the sarin gas was supplied to Sunni foreign fighters by a Saddam-era general working under the outlawed Iraqi Baath party leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
Al-Douri was a top aide to Saddam Hussein before he was deposed as Iraqi president.
The sarin nerve gas used in the Allepo attack, sources say, had been prepared by former Iraqi Military Industries Brig. Gen. Adnan al-Dulaimi. It then was supplied to Baath-affiliated foreign fighters of the Sunni and Saudi Arabian-backed al-Nusra Front in Aleppo, with Turkey’s cooperation, through the Turkish town of Antakya in Hatay Province.
The source who brought out the documentation now in the hands of the UN is said to have been an aide to al-Douri.
Al-Dulaimi was a major player in Saddam’s chemical weapons production projects, the former aide said. Moreover, Al-Dulaimi has been working in the Sunni-controlled region of northwestern Iraq where the outlawed Baath party now is located and produces the sarin.
The NGIC depiction of the variety of sarin as “bench-scale” reinforces an analysis by terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky, who said the recent findings on the chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21 on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, was “indeed a self-inflicted attack” by the Syrian opposition to provoke US and military intervention in Syria.
Bodansky, a former director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, said a preliminary analysis of the sarin showed that it was of a “kitchen” variety and not military grade.
He questioned that the sarin was of a military variety, which accumulates around victims’ hair and loose clothing.
Because these molecules become detached and released with any movement, Bodansky said, “they would have thus killed or injured the first responders who touched the victims’ bodies without protective clothes â€¦ and masks.”
Various videos of the incident clearly show first responders going from patient to patient without protective clothing administering first aid to the victims. There were no reports of casualties among the first responders.
“This strongly indicates that the agent in question was the slow acting â€˜kitchen sarin,'” Bodansky said.
“Indeed, other descriptions of injuries treated by MSF (The French group Doctors Without Borders) — suffocation, foaming, vomiting and diarrhea — agree with the effects of diluted, late-action drops of liquefied Sarin,” he said.
The terrorism expert said that the jihadist movement has technologies which have been confirmed in captured jihadist labs in both Turkey and Iraq, as well as from the wealth of data recovered from al-Qaida in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
He added that the projectiles shown by the opposition, which were tested by UN inspectors, are not standard weapons of the Syrian army.
Meanwhile, an Italian former journalist and a Belgian researcher who were recently freed from their al-Nusra captives say they overheard their captors talking about their involvement in a deadly chemical attack “last month,” which would have been the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.
The Italian, Domenico Quirico, and Belgian researcher Pierre Piccinin were released Monday after five months of captivity.
“The government of Bashar al-Assad did not use Sarin gas or other types of gas in the outskirts of Damascus,” Piccinin said.
While captive, Piccinin said the two had overheard a Skype conversation in English among three people.
“The conversation was based on real facts,” said Quirico, claiming one of the three people in the alleged conversation identified himself as a Free Syrian Army general.
He added that the militants said the rebels carried out the attack as a provocation to force the West to intervene militarily to oust the Assad regime.
Both men told a news conference they had no access to the outside world while they were held captive and knew nothing about the use of chemical weapons until they heard the discussion on Skype.
Now, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, Ray McGovern, similarly backs the claim that the Syrian rebels perpetrated the poison gas attack on Aug. 21
McGovern was one of a number of veteran intelligence professionals who recently signed a letter to Obama saying that Damascus wasn’t behind the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
As WND recently reported, former US intelligence analysts claim current intelligence analysts have told them Assad was not responsible for the Aug. 21 poison gas attack, saying there was a “growing body of evidence” that reveals the incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition.
The analysts, in an open letter to Obama, referred to a meeting a week before the Aug. 21 incident in which opposition military commanders ordered preparations for an “imminent escalation” due to a “war-changing development” that would be followed by the US-led bombing of Syria. They said the growing body of evidence came mostly from sources affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters.
Those reports, they said, revealed that canisters containing chemical agents were brought into a suburb of Damascus, where they were then opened.
“Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and US intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army and their foreign sponsors,” the analysts said.
The VIPS memo to Obama reinforces separate videos, which show foreign fighters associated with the Syrian opposition firing artillery canisters of poison gas. One video shows Nadee Baloosh, a member of an al-Qaida-affiliated group Rioyadh al-Abdeen, admitting to the use of chemical weapons.
In the video clip, al-Abdeen, who is in the Latakia area of Syria, said his forces used “chemicals which produce lethal and deadly gases that I possess.”
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