The Cable

Syria's Rebels Cry Foul After Obama Calls Off Strike

Members of the Syrian opposition and their supporters reacted with a mixture of alarm and outrage at President Obama's decision to delay a military strike on Syria while he seeks authorization from Congress.

In brief remarks from the Rose Garden on Saturday afternoon, Obama said the United States should take military action against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21, but that he would wait for both houses of Congress to debate the action and hold a vote. The earliest that could happen is the week of September 9, when both chambers will have returned from summer recess.

The unexpected delay added to a sense of disarray and confusion among some rebel factions about U.S. policy and when, or if, the Obama administration will intervene to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what Obama called "the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st Century." An extraordinary amount of detail about a military strike had been leaking out for days, leading forces on the ground to assume U.S. action was imminent.

"This is absolutely a blow to many in the opposition on the ground who've suffered the brunt of the chemical attacks," said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which has long favored American intervention in the conflict. "The feeling now is that this is really an orphaned revolution and that the regime will feel emboldened to continue its shelling of cities and towns around Damascus."

"The Syrian people feel more alone now than ever," Moustafa said. "Even after the Assad regime used chemical weapons that the entire planet opposes, the U.S. has yet to react."

No one spokesman can speak for Syria's complex, often fractured, opposition, of course. But Moustafa's outrage is far from isolated. Razan Zaitouneh, an anti-Assad activist in the town of Douma, one of the towns hit in the Aug. 21 attack, said she'd listened to Obama's speech, "But [I] don't care anymore. After learning they [the Americans] knew about the attack three days before it took place and did nothing, what should I expect from them?!" he wrote in an instant message.

Opposition supporters said foreclosing any military action until at least 10 days from now gives the Assad regime time to prepare its defenses and telegraphs U.S. intentions.

"It's a horrible idea. From a military perspective, this is the worst possible thing we could've done," said Chris Harmer, a retired Navy officer, analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and one of Washington's most vocal advocates for military action in Syria. "It gives Assad a tremendous amount of foreknowledge. It allows Assad to disperse his forces. It gives him all kinds of time to prep for an attack."

Shelling reportedly resumed in Damascus as soon as Obama finished speaking, Harmer noted.

A senior administration official disputed the notion that a delay would embolden Assad's forces.

"On the contrary. It's not a bad thing to keep the Assad regime and his military in some suspense," the official said. "We've had some indications that they've entered into a defensive crouch. As long as there's a military threat looming over them, they'll stay in that crouch. I'm not saying there'll be no violence. But there are a number of Syrian units focused less on perpetrating violence than on their own survival."

The extra time also gives the Obama administration the chance to rally support for a military assault. "There now is more time to talk to our allies. There is time to educate the American people. There is time to take the classified intelligence briefing given to Congress last night and make a more convincing case," said Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There's also time to ask the most important question of all: What is our strategic goal here? What are we trying to do in Syria?"

Cordesman added that the Obama administration's roll-out of intelligence on Syria had been clumsy and unconvincing. Secretary of State John Kerry's stated casualty estimates, in particular, were "in need of adult supervision," Cordesman said. Kerry proclaimed that precisely 1,429 were killed in the Aug 21 attack. That figure, according to Cordesman, was "far too precise. It came from one [non-governmental organization], and is simply not credible. And, to make things worse, it disagreed with the British estimate." (It put the death toll around 350.)

But rebel groups were counting on a swift U.S. response after the release this week of an intelligence report pinning the blame for the chemical attack on the Syrian regime.

"Psychologically, we built up rebels' expectations that help was coming," Harmer said. "They were prepped for a U.S. attack that never came or might not come."

Harmer said that moderate Syrian opposition forces might now be tempted to join forces with the Al Nusra Front, which is aligned with Al Qaeda. "The psychological impact of [a delayed U.S. strike] can't be underestimated, especially from moderates," Harmer said. "The temptation to go to the dark side is greater than ever."

Within minutes of Obama's address, lawmakers began taking unexpected positions on the rejiggered Syria debate. Sen. Rand Paul, who had previously called military action in Syria "a big mistake," issued a statement saying that he was "encouraged President Obama now says he will fulfill his constitutional obligation to seek authorization for any potential military action in Syria."

"This is the most important decision any President or any Senator must make, and it deserves vigorous debate," Paul added. Top Republicans in the Senate, including Leader Mitch McConnell, were also supportive of Obama's decision.

Rep. Peter King, meanwhile, accused the President of "abdicating" his authority as commander-in-chief by even entertaining approval from Congressmen like him. That sentiment got some support from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, who accused Obama of a "‘lead from behind' approach in his own government. While I appreciate the President bringing a matter of this importance before Congress, without strong leadership from our Commander in Chief, neither the American people nor the rest of the world will believe that the United States is serious in our condemnation of the use of chemical weapons, no matter what limited military action is eventually taken."

In one of the most surprising reactions from Congress, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued statements saying they could not support Obama's plan to order a limited cruise missile strike. Not because it was too aggressive, but because it wasn't aggressive enough.

"We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests," the senators said.

"Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing. And it would send the wrong signal to America's friends and allies, the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime, Iran, and the world--all of whom are watching closely what actions America will take."

Moustafa urged McCain and Graham to authorize the strikes.

"I think they should be voting yes," said Moustafa. "I agree with Sen. McCain's position that a U.S. strike should seek to improve the rebels' position against the Assad regime. Regardless some action must be taken even if it's not exactly what we want in the long run."

According to senior administration officials, Obama had planned to strike Syria without congressional approval, but changed his mind on Friday night. Reportedly, national security officials were initially opposed to seeking lawmakers' permission, but changed their minds Saturday.

Some lawmakers called on the Senate go back into session early so it could take up the debate. House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement that the chamber would take up a measure the week of September 9.

"There's a respect to be had for the president to go to Congress to get authorization to do something that must be done after this chemical strike but i think we need to react," Moustafa said. "This is not frightening to Damascus and Moscow and Hezbollah. They see this as a weakness. This was a huge chemical attack killing more than 1,400 people and we haven't moved quickly enough and now congress is going to take up the issue."

National Security

U.S. Had Intel on Chemical Strike Before It Was Launched

American intelligence agencies had indications three days beforehand that the Syrian regime was poised to launch a lethal chemical attack that killed more than a thousand people and has set the stage for a possible U.S. military strike on Syria.

The disclosure -- part of a larger U.S. intelligence briefing on Syria's chemical attacks -- raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions for the American government. First and foremost: What, if anything, did it do to notify the Syrian opposition of the pending attack?

In a call with reporters Friday afternoon, senior administration officials did not address whether this information was shared with rebel groups in advance of the attack. A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the information had been shared.

But at least some members of the Syrian opposition are already lashing out at the U.S. government for not acting ahead of time to prevent the worst chemical attack in a quarter-century. "If you knew, why did you take no action?" asked Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist and secure-communications expert who has recently relocated to the United States. He added that none of his contacts had any sort of prior warning about the nerve gas assault -- although such an attack was always a constant fear.

Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition activist in the town of Douma, one of the towns hit in the Aug. 21 attack, said she had no early indication of a major chemical attack. "Even the moment [the attack hit], we thought it was as usual, limited and not strong," she told The Cable in an instant message. That only changed when "we started to hear about the number of injuries."

"It's unbelievable that they did nothing to warn people or try to stop the regime before the crime," Zaitouneh added.

The U.S. intelligence community is now all but certain that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the suburbs of Damascus nine days ago. And part of that certainty were the military's signs of advance preparation for an attack.

"In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack," said a U.S. intelligence report the Obama administration released Friday.

"Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21," the report added. Satellites detected that the weapons were launched from territories held by the regime. They landed in rebel-controlled or contested neighborhoods.

The intelligence assessment is based on "a substantial body of information," including satellite imagery, intercepted communications, and social media reports from the scene of the attack.

"Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation," the report said. "We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place."

There had been reports of chemical attacks before the August 21 assault in Damascus. But it provided a wealth of new intelligence picked up by U.S. spy agencies that helped make the U.S. case for Syrian government culpability.

The Cable reported Tuesday that U.S. intelligence had intercepted a panicked phone call between an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense and a leader of a chemical weapons unit in the hours after the attack. The minister demanded answers for the strike, which used a nerve agent. Those conversations helped convince U.S. officials that the Syrian regime was responsible.

The new intelligence assessment doesn't definitively answer whether the attack was ordered by the highest ranks of the government or if it was the work of a rogue military officer. But remarks this afternoon by Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that the Obama administration is holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible.

"Read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted," Kerry said in remarks at the State Department.

The U.S. has determined that 1,429 people were killed in the attack, including at least 426 children. That number closely matches the casualty estimates reported by a Syrian opposition group yesterday. A separate report from the British Joint Intelligence Committee put the death toll much lower, at least 350 people. The U.S. assessment said the final tally "will certainly evolve as we obtain more information."

In releasing the intelligence report, the Obama administration sought to assure Americans that its conclusions were based on multiple verifiable sources, including public accounts, and that the intelligence community had not repeated the mistakes of 2003, when it incorrectly judged that Iraq possessed chemical weapons.

"We will not repeat that moment," Kerry said, emphasizing that the intelligence about the Syrian attacks had been vetted and reviewed.

In addition to U.S. satellite and signals intelligence, the report also relies on "thousands of social media reports" in the hours after the attack, noting they were sent from "at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area." Kerry mentioned the volume of the reports, as well. Ninety minutes after the attack, "all hell broke loose in the social media," Kerry said, noting that the reports conveyed images and video of victims of the attack, showing some of them dazed, twitching, foaming at the mouth, or dead.

The report said U.S. intelligence "identified one hundred videos attributed to the attack, many of which show large numbers of bodies exhibiting physical signs consistent with, but not unique to, nerve agent exposure."

Senior administration officials acknowledged that they had not yet obtained soil samples from the site of the attack to test for evidence of chemical agents. Physical evidence also wasn't part of the new assessment, an indication that the Obama administration believes the abundance of reporting from other sources is sufficient to make its case that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons.

The intelligence report also suggests a possible motive for the attack.

"We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition."  

Kerry couched a U.S. response to the attacks in moral and humanitarian terms. But he did not advance any legal argument to support U.S. military action.

"2 things we did not hear from Secretary Kerry. (1) What is our military objective? (2) What legal justification is the Administration using?" Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted after the secretary's remarks.

Meanwhile, the world is bracing for an anticipated attack on Syria. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the United States and the four other big U.N. powers in a closed-door briefing today that it would take up to two weeks to determine whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, according to diplomats briefed on the meeting.

Ban said that his chief U.N. weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, had initially insisted he would need three to four weeks to analyze samples collected at the site of the Aug. 21 attack. But Ban told the gathering, which included Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and representatives from Britain, China, France, and Russia, that he had convinced Sellstrom to conclude his analysis in 10 to 14 days.

Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters today that the U.N. could not immediately provide the Security Council with any findings on the nature of the substance that asphyxiated large numbers of people in the attack. Once the analysis is completed, he said, Ban will provide a report to the 15-nation council.

"We have to be very clear here that before the mission can draw any conclusion about this incident, the evaluation of all available information, including the laboratory analysis of all samples, must be completed," Nesirky said. "The team is doing its utmost to expedite the process of analysis."

Despite White House assertions that the U.N. inspectors' work is "redundant," Ban told the big powers that the U.N. would return to Syria in the future to resume inspections. Ban said that the inspectors had concluded their field inspections in the Damascus suburbs and that U.N. inspectors had visited a military hospital in Damascus to examine government claims that Syrian forces had been exposed to nerve agent during three recent chemical weapons attacks launched by rebel groups. Nesirky said that the chemical weapons team's translators had already left the country and that the technical experts were packing their bags, with plans to depart Syria Saturday morning.

Ban plans to meet Saturday with Angela Kane, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, who is returning from Damascus, where she had negotiated access to the attack sites with Syrian authorities. But diplomatic sources said he has no plans to brief the Security Council over the U.S. Labor Day weekend.

In the meantime, some within the Syrian opposition are worried that any delays could give Assad time to bolster his defenses.

"This is one worry that we have. Since the international community has begun talking about a response to the chemical massacre, what we have noticed is that the Assad regime has started moving different military units into different areas," Khaled Saleh, the media director of the Syrian National Coalition and a member of the Syrian National Council, told The Cable. "So they're using that time to hide their more well-armed units. And you know, when they move them to schools, the U.S. and the international community can't do a whole lot about that."

If the U.S. doesn't strike Assad hard enough or if the strike is too limited, he will likely hit back at Syrians in response. "Our worry is that Assad will turn to Syrians and kill more of them," Saleh added.

Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images