U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 — 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.
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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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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.”
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“Any U.N. 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 — 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 U.S. 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 “U.S. 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 U.N. 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.”