The Cable

Exclusive: Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Used Nerve Gas, U.S. Spies Say

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they're certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime -- and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? "It's unclear where control lies," one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?" 

Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military's rationale for launching the strike -- if it had a rationale at all. Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government. Whatever the reason, the attack has triggered worldwide outrage, and put the Obama administration on the brink of launching a strike of its own in Syria. "We don't know exactly why it happened," the intelligence official added. "We just know it was pretty fucking stupid."

American intelligence analysts are certain that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 -- the captured phone calls, combined with local doctors' accounts and video documentation of the tragedy -- are considered proof positive. That is why the U.S. government, from the president on down, has been unequivocal in its declarations that the Syrian military gassed thousands of civilians in the East Ghouta region. 

However, U.S. spy services still have not acquired the evidence traditionally considered to be the gold standard in chemical weapons cases: soil, blood, and other environmental samples that test positive for reactions with nerve agent. That's the kind of proof that America and its allies processed from earlier, small-scale attacks that the White House described in equivocal tones, and declined to muster a military response to in retaliation.

There is an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about whether to strike Assad immediately -- or whether to allow United Nations inspectors to try and collect that proof before the bombing begins. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the work of that team "redundant ... because it is clearly established already that chemical weapons have been used on a significant scale." 

But within the intelligence community, at least, "there's an interest in letting the U.N. piece run its course," the official said. "It puts the period on the end of the sentence."

When news about the Ghouta incident first trickled out, there were questions about whether or not a chemical agent was to blame for the massacre. But when weapons experts and U.S. intelligence analysts began reviewing the dozens of videos and pictures allegedly taken from the scene of the attacks, they quickly concluded that a nerve gas, such as sarin, had been used there. The videos showed young victims who were barely able to breathe and, in some cases, twitching. Close-up photos revealed that their pupils were severely constricted. Doctors and nurses who say they treated the victims reported that they later became short of breath as well. Eyewitnesses talk of young children so confused, they couldn't even indentify their own parents. All of these are classic signs of exposure to a nerve agent like sarin, the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice. 

Making the case even more conclusive were the images of the missiles that supposedly delivered the deadly attacks. If they were carrying conventional warheads, they would have likely been all but destroyed as they detonated. But several missiles in East Ghouta were found largely intact. "Why is there so much rocket left? There shouldn't be so much rocket left," the intelligence official told The Cable. The answer, the official and his colleagues concluded, was that the weapon was filled with nerve agent, not a conventional explosive.

In the days after the attacks, there was a great deal of public discussion about which side in Syria's horrific civil war actually launched the strike. Allies of the Assad regime, like Iran and Russia, pointed the finger at the opposition. The intercepted communications told a different story -- one in which the Syrian government was clearly to blame.

The official White House line is that the president is still considering his options for Syria. But all of Washington is talking about a punitive strike on the Assad government in terms of when, not if. Even some congressional doves have said they're now at least open to the possibility of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. Images of dead children, neatly stacked in rows, have a way of changing minds.

"It's horrible, it's stupid," the intelligence official said about the East Ghouta attack by the Syrian military. "Whatever happens in the next few days -- they get what they deserve."

Reuters

National Security

Architect of Syria War Plan Doubts Surgical Strikes Will Work

The United States appears to be closer than ever to deploying a series of surgical strikes on Syrian targets. But a key architect of that strategy is seriously and publicly questioning the wisdom of carrying it out. 

In the last 48 hours, U.S. officials leaked plans to several media outlets to fire cruise missiles at Syrian military installations as a warning to the Syrian government not to use its chemical weapons stockpiles again. On Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker, who was briefed by administration officials twice over the weekend, said a U.S. "response is imminent" in Syria. "I think we will respond in a surgical way," he said. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to set the groundwork for a U.S. military incursion.

Now, a former U.S. Navy planner responsible for outlining an influential and highly-detailed proposal for surgical strikes tells The Cable he has serious misgivings about the plan. He says too much faith is being put into the effectiveness of surgical strikes on Assad's forces with little discussion of what wider goals such attacks are supposed to achieve.

"Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive," Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said. "I never intended my analysis of a cruise missile strike option to be advocacy even though some people took it as that."

"I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives," he added. "Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks. It's not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances U.S. interests."

In July, Harmer authored a widely-circulated study showing how the U.S. could degrade key Syrian military installations on the cheap with virtually no risk to U.S. personnel. "It could be done quickly, easily, with no risk whatsoever to American personnel, and a relatively minor cost," said Harmer. One of the study's proposals was cruise missile strikes from what are known as TLAMs (Tomahawk land attack missiles) fired from naval vessels in the Mediterranean.

The study immediately struck a chord with hawkish lawmakers on the Hill who were frustrated with the options outlined by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey that required a major commitment by U.S. military forces with a pricetag in the billions.

"For a serious accounting of a realistic limited military option in Syria, I would strongly recommend a new study that is being released today by the Institute for the Study of War," Sen. John McCain said in July, referring to Harmer's study. "This new study confirms what I and many others have long argued: That it is militarily feasible for the United States and our friends and allies to significantly degrade Assad's air power at relatively low cost, low risk to our personnel, and in very short order."

Not all surgical strikes are created equal, of course. And there's no guarantee that the Obama administration's strike plan would look like Harmer's. Regardless, Harmer doubted that any surgical strikes would produce the desired results -- especially if the goal is to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

"Punitive action is the dumbest of all actions," he said. "The Assad regime has shown an incredible capacity to endure pain and I don't think we have the stomach to deploy enough punitive action that would serve as a deterrent."

He also doubted the effectiveness of taking out Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. "If we start picking off chemical weapons targets in Syria, the logical response is if any weapons are left in the warehouses, he's going to start dispersing them among his forces if he hasn't already," he continued. "So you're too late to the fight."