The Cable

Former CIA Deputy: No Way Will Assad Give Up His Nerve Gas

The Obama administration's plan to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons depends on President Bashar al-Assad letting international inspectors into his country -- and standing by as they destroy the deadly agents in his arsenal.

But former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials -- as well as Syria experts -- doubt that Assad has any intention of doing this. And in his tacit agreement to the daunting weapons-removal plan, which was brokered by the United States and Russia and will take months if not years to complete, they detect a deliberate strategy.

"I think this is the Syrians playing for time," Michael Morell, the recently-retired deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told Foreign Policy. "I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons."

The weapons that Assad is believed to have used in a devastating August 21 attack in Damascus provide him with an important regional defense, one he is not likely to give up. The regime has "long seen them as a strategic deterrent against Israel," Morell said. "Be a skeptic that [Assad] is at all serious about this."

Morell also advised equal skepticism about Russia's intentions. The country is one of Syria's few allies, and has already ruled out any use of military force if Assad fails to comply with the plan to gather up his weapons. 

Now, amid a pause in U.S. military action, Assad has the time and a reason to hide his arsenal or spirit pieces of it out of the country. For the past three months, reports from Syria analysts and rebels fighting Assad have suggested that he has shifted his stockpile to new locations. One opposition general even claimed that Assad gave  some of his stockpile to Hezbollah in Lebanon and moved portions into Iraq. "A great deal of reporting indicates he is moving his chemical weapons around," said Chris Harmer, a retired Navy officer and an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, which monitors Syrian military movements and reports from citizens and fighters in the country.

"This delay has given the regime plenty of time to come up with quite a comprehensive plan for how to best position themselves to deal with a military strike," said Valerie Szybala, a Syria analyst with the institute. Assad now knows which regime targets the United States would likely strike if the diplomatic route fails, but he also knows that the attack isn't imminent. Under the U.S.-Russia framework agreement, weapons inspectors are supposed to be in Syria by November.

"I do not think Assad's intentions are genuine," Szybala said, who, like Morell, doubted that the Syrian dictator would ever comply with the U.S.-Russia plan. "Nothing that has ever come out of this regime has given us an indication they're trustworthy."

Since the Syrian civil war began, U.S. intelligence agencies have been trying to keep close tabs on the country's chemical weapons arsenal.

"That's always been a priority for us, trying to figure out where the stuff is," said Morell, who twice served as acting director of the CIA and retired in August after a 33-year career at the agency. "It was one of our top requirements. It will be even more so now. I think it will just increase in importance."

U.S. intelligence agencies have had more than two years to take satellite photos of Syria's chemical weapons production facilities, eavesdrop on military and regime officials, and to assess the intentions and capabilities of Syria's leaders. But that was painstaking work, made all the more difficult by the nature of the weapons the United States is trying to track.

"Chemical weapons are easy to hide and easy to move around," Morell said. It's difficult to track individual containers of weapons, particularly when they're transported. According to Harmer, "A truck full of chemical weapons warheads looks like any other truck; there is nothing unique about it, so it is more difficult to assess what [Assad] is doing."

Asked whether Assad now has a greater motivation to move his weapons into new storage facilities or hiding places, Morell replied, "Absolutely."

The United States appears to have some idea of how big Assad's chemical arsenal is. Reportedly, U.S. and Russian negotiators were able to agree on the size when negotiating the disarmament plan. And Syria watchers said that there are some known production facilities that have been monitored by independent observers and U.S. spies for several years.

But outsiders haven't had direct access to any locations known to house chemical weapons since the civil war began in 2011, Szybala said. "The world has kind of lost track of where they are."

As yet, no firm evidence has emerged that shows where Assad is hiding the stockpiles or whom he may have given them to. But analysts have had some success tracking the movements of conventional forces, including artillery batteries used to deliver the gas.

"By all accounts, Assad is decentralizing his conventional forces to the [maximum] extent possible, making them less vulnerable to an attack by the U.S.," Harmer said. "We have seen a good deal of Twitter and Facebook chatter from the rebels indicating that Assad is repositioning assets out of Mount Qasioun [overlooking Damascus] and moving those assets closer to civilian populations," where they would be harder to hit without injuring or killing innocent bystanders.

Independent analysts as well as U.S. intelligence agencies have relied heavily on social media reports from people in Syria to keep track of Assad's conventional forces, and to a lesser extent the movement of his chemical arsenal. Twitter feeds and YouTube videos were a key part of the U.S. intelligence assessment that put the blame for the August 21 attack on Assad's forces.

"It is obviously more difficult to track chemical weapons movement using open source intelligence than it is to track conventional weapons movements," Harmer said, referring to sources of information, like social media, that are publicly available.

The plan to sequester and destroy Assad's chemical weapons put on hold U.S. plans to strike at the Assad regime. Some experts doubt that the delay in a military strike will make much difference in the United States' ability to collect intelligence on the Syrian regime, or that it would at least not degrade those efforts.

"Methods that we employed before should still work in the future, on the one hand," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense expert at the Brookings Institution. "On the other, information that was largely inaccessible to us before will likely remain hard to obtain even in coming weeks and months."  

Like other observers, O'Hanlon agreed that Assad "is playing for time... but he may be able to do that and gradually give up his chemicals. After all, his short-term goal is survival. A slow process that secures and then destroys his chemicals may not preclude that."

Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer now with Brookings, agreed with assessments that U.S. intelligence on Assad's chemical weapons capabilities is probably as good as it's going to get. "I think the bigger problem now is security," he said, as weapons inspectors prepare to take stock of the Syrian arsenal.

"The Syrian army has to provide security for visits to installations in the areas it controls. It provided only limited security for the team that investigated the August attacks; it must do much much better," Riedel said.

The delay in a military strike could end up working to the benefit of U.S. intelligence agencies if it helps them develop new sources of information and look more closely at Syrian military movements.

"The upside is, the intel community has more time to reposition assets, get better coverage, tighten their technical understanding of where Assad's forces are," Harmer said. "However, given that we are about 30 months into a civil war...the IC should have been all over this already. So, we are giving the IC time to complete a task they probably already have completed and updated several times over."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Cable

Russia and the West Spar Over U.N. Report, Despite Evidence Pointing to Syrian Regime

The long-awaited United Nations report on the deadly Aug. 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus does not directly blame either the Syrian government or the Syrian opposition, but the scrupulous level of detail in the report provides new evidence pointing to a military-orchestrated assault rather than a rebel-executed chemical weapons attack. In particular, analysts speaking with Foreign Policy latched onto the report's conclusions regarding the quantities of toxic gas in the attack, the type of rockets used, and the trajectory of the missile vectors.

"This is consistent with an alleged use by Syrian government troops," Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons, told FP after reviewing the report.

The U.N. inspectors' report, which was presented this morning to the Security Council, found "clear and convincing evidence" that rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The U.N. team compiled evidence from a broad range of sources, including several surface-to-surface rockets "capable of delivering significant chemical payloads" and statements from more than 50 victims, first responders, and medical specialists. Evidence of sarin was identified in the majority of environmental and biomedical samples, including blood, urine, and hair, collected by the U.N. team.

The lethally of the attack, the report noted, was exacerbated by the morning chill on Aug. 21, which contributed to pressing the air downward, where it poured into residential homes and basements, killing people in their sleep.

For Trapp, the combination of the report's weapons data (rockets designed for liquid-fill delivery and traces of sarin found on the rockets), the significant number of rockets fired, and the way the weapons were used (at a time of day when stable atmospheric conditions were expected to maximize the effect of the chemical attack) speaks volumes. "That all points to a weapon that came from a military program, used by units that understand and have training in chemical warfare operations," he said. "If an opposition group had been the perpetrator, it would have required: (A) readiness to kill large numbers of people in an opposition-controlled area, (B) access to a significant number of chemical weapons rockets from a Syrian army stockpile, and (C) some training in how and when to use chemical weapons to maximum effect" -- capabilities Trapp strongly doubts the rebels have.

Other analysts, such as Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed with Trapp.

"The rebels in Syria can get off a few mortar rounds here and there. On a good day they might even fire off a salvo of recoilless rifles," Harmer told FP. "But they don't have the ability to deploy mass indirect fires with rockets, which is how this sarin gas attack occurred in Damascus. The regime does."

White noted that the trajectory of the rounds fired on targets in Moadamiyah and Ayn Terma point squarely to regime locations in the north and west. "I suppose the apologists for the regime will say they could have been fired from anywhere along those trajectories, but this certainly supports the US intell conclusion that the rockets came from regime territory," he said. 

The Russians were not eager to draw this conclusion. Moscow's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that his country "strongly condemns" the use of such weapons but cautioned that others should "not to jump to any conclusion." He scolded his Western counterparts, saying, "Some colleagues jumped to their conclusions when they were saying the [U.N.] report definitely proves that it was the government forces who used chemical weapons."

Churkin also deflected questions about the inspectors finding that some of the Syrian artillery rounds used in the attack bore inscriptions in Cyrillic, which could be a mark of Russian manufacture. He said that the U.N. needed to have chemical weapons experts "look into it," among several other questions.

Western nations, meanwhile, have been quick to latch onto the details of the report and blame the Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Shortly after the report's publication, France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said that the underlying evidence presented by the U.N. inspectors -- including the trajectory of sarin-filled rockets that targeted Ghouta --"leaves no doubt" that the Syrian government is responsible. "When you look at the facts, the quantities of toxic gas, the complexities of the [chemical mixtures], and the trajectory of the [missile] vectors, all that leaves absolutely no doubt as to the origin of the attack" he told French radio station RTL. The report, Fabius added, "confirms the position of those of us who have said the regime is guilty."

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters outside the Security Council that the report "confirms unmistakenly that chemical weapons were used in Syria on Aug. 21." Power said that while the inspectors had no mandate to assign blame, the "technical details of the U.N. report make it clear that only the regime could have carried out this large-scale chemical weapons attack."

Power said that one of the weapons used in the attack, a 122-millimeter rocket, has been used by the regime in previous attacks. She said that a review of thousands of online videos by American authorities has shown no evidence of the opposition "manufacturing or using this style of rocket."

Power also said that the U.N. chief inspector, Ake Sellstrom, responding to a question from Churkin, Russia's U.N. envoy, said that the quality of the sarin used in the attack was "higher than that of the sarin used by Saddam Hussein's program. Sellstrom also stated that weapons obtained on the site of the scene of this monstrous crime were professionally made. He said that they bore none of the characteristics of improvised weapons."

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who did not have a mandate to assign blame for the attack, limited his statements to undirected moral outrage. 

"The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale," Ban told reporters. "This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 -- and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare."