Serious questions raised about the intel that almost got us into war with Syria
The McClatchy News Service has a fascinating article about the infamous chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of Damascus that almost dragged America into the brutal Syrian civil war. The American media might want to drag itself away from its 24/7 coverage of bridge lane closings in New Jersey to consider the very strong possibility that the Obama Administration lied about the attack. And one of the key operators in this lie was none other than John Kerry, currently our bumbling Secretary of State, who once ran a very annoying presidential campaign that sought to harness liberal anger about a war that began, in part, due to faulty intelligence.
The McClatchy report makes this comparison, in an unfortunately disingenuous way, as they discuss a report issued by a team of security and weapons experts who investigated the Syrian gas attack:
The report also raised questions whether the Obama administration misused intelligence information in a way similar to the administration of President George W. Bush in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then, U.S. officials insisted that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had an active program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Subsequent inspections turned up no such program or weapons.
“What, exactly, are we spending all this money on intelligence for?” [MIT science professor Theodore] Postol asked.
Professor Postol’s question is fair enough – it has echoed on both sides of the partisan divide, each time our expensive (and, as we’ve recently learned, incredibly pervasive) intelligence services deliver an incomplete or inadequate product. But the Bush Administration did not willfully “misuse” intelligence the way the Obama Administration appears to have done in Syria. Contrary to years of left-wing anti-war myth-building, there was broad international agreement that the information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was valid, and in any event, it was not the only reason the operation in Iraq was undertaken.
In contrast, the chemical attack on Damascus was a single event that would have brought the United States into combat with Syria, an outcome our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President pushed very hard to reach (well, he didn’t let it cut into his golf time, and there was a lot of embarrassment over his previous “red line” rhetoric, but at the end of the day it was a war Obama wanted.) And the new report, authored by MIT professor Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd, makes a strong case that the Syrian government could not have launched the gas rocket in question – a detail the Administration was almost certainly aware of, because it’s so obvious that even Team Benghazi couldn’t miss it.
There are two major findings that cast doubt on the Assad regime’s culpability in the report. Let us pause to note that Assad is, unquestionably, a murderous scumbag of the worst sort. His five-star suite in Hell is reserved; hot oil is already bubbling in the Jacuzzi of agony, and a mint of penance has been laid upon his pillow. With this in mind, the report’s first controversial finding might be dismissed as deliberate obfuscation by the Assad regime. The clumsy short-range rocket used to deliver the poison gas to the site of the atrocity does not appear in their weapons inventory, but they could easily be lying on that paperwork, perhaps even stashing a few more undeclared rockets away so they’ve still got some banned weapons in stock after “complying” with WMD disarmament efforts.
But the second finding of the report is tough to explain away: the rocket in question didn’t have anything close to the range necessary to hit its target, if launched from Syrian government positions, as the Administration claimed.
Relying on mathematical projections about the likely force of the rocket and noting that its design – some have described it as a trash can on a stick – would have made it awkward in flight, Lloyd and Postol conclude that the rocket likely had a maximum range of 2 kilometers, or just more than 1.2 miles. That range, the report explains in detail, means the rockets could not have come from land controlled by the Syrian government.
To emphasize their point, the authors used a map produced by the White House that showed which areas were under government and rebel control on Aug. 21 and where the chemical weapons attack occurred. Drawing circles around Zamalka to show the range from which the rocket could have come, the authors conclude that all of the likely launching points were in rebel-held areas or areas that were in dispute. The area securely in government hands was miles from the possible launch zones.
In an interview, Postol said that a basic analysis of the weapon – some also have described as a looking like a push pop, a fat cylinder filled with sarin atop a thin stick that holds the engine – would have shown that it wasn’t capable of flying the 6 miles from the center of the Syrian government-controlled part of Damascus to the point of impact in the suburbs, or even the 3.6 miles from the edges of government-controlled ground.
He questioned whether U.S. intelligence officials had actually analyzed the improbability of a rocket with such a non-aerodynamic design traveling so far before Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Sept. 3 that “we are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale – particularly from the heart of regime territory.”
There were other rockets involved in the incident, and they could conceivably have been launched by regime forces, but the big one very probably was not. Presumably there’s some chance it could have been transported into a contested area by government forces before launch, but the authors of the report concluded that the case for regime culpability is not the slam-dunk that was presented to the American people. It remains possible that rebel forces launched this particular gas rocket:
“I honestly have no idea what happened,” Postol said. “My view when I started this process was that it couldn’t be anything but the Syrian government behind the attack. But now I’m not sure of anything. The administration narrative was not even close to reality. Our intelligence cannot possibly be correct.”
Lloyd, who has spent the past half-year studying the weapons and capabilities in the Syrian conflict, disputed the assumption that the rebels are less capable of making rockets than the Syrian military.
“The Syrian rebels most definitely have the ability to make these weapons,” he said. “I think they might have more ability than the Syrian government.”
Syria is a horrid mess, and while the passing of the Assad regime would be cause for celebration, we don’t want something equally bad – or even worse, from the standpoint of American strategic interests in the region – taking its place. The Obama Administration should have top-shelf intelligence before it starts making bold declarations and pushing for intervention. The intervention didn’t happen – we got an embarrassing geo-political rout at the hands of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, courtesy of John Kerry – but it remains relevant that the case made for military action was sloppy at best.