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Questioning the intelligence: Obama's decision to supply arms to Syria

The red line threshold has finally been crossed – but on unverified intelligence, encouraged by appetites for military intervention. It is Iraq all over again.

The White House’s announcement that forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad have used chemical weapons against rebels in the country’s civil war has triggered anxiety in much of the international community. The prospect of stepped up US military involvement could intensify and prolong the civil war, considerably increasing the toll in terms of human misery and civilian lives. Humanitarian considerations are now being subordinated to US military and strategic self-interest.

While the White House speaks vaguely of allies, it is conspicuously unable to claim international legitimacy for its actions from either the UN Security Council or NATO. Like his predecessor, Obama may be on the brink of forming yet another rag-tag US-led coalition of the willing. This would however be politically risky if, as is likely, Syria blows up in his face. It should also be noted that the US definition of “forces loyal to” Assad could include paramilitary groups supporting the Assad government, but operating independently of Syrian armed forces.

Although the US and the UK are now falling over each other in their eagerness to publicly reinforce each other’s findings, their claims openly differ. Whereas the US claims that sarin has been used on a small scale multiple times in the last year, the UK is asserting that it has been used at least twice.

Obama’s chain of custody has been broken

President Obama has until now insisted on the application of a chain of custody standard so rigorous that the French loudly protested about it. Chain of custody means here that each and every link in the chain of evidence must be verified by independent players, from the collection of soil and tissue samples on-site, to ensuring the integrity of evidence, conducting tests in internationally recognised analytical laboratories, and assessing the integrity and relevance of evidence.

Until now, all evidence submitted by the US and the UK in support of allegations of chemical weapons use has failed to meet even the most minimal chain of custody requirements. Rebel groups collated samples and passed them on to one another or to regional or international allies in a process that was wide open to contamination or abuse. Alternatively, individuals working with or for western intelligence agencies collected evidence which is by definition equally suspect. None of the purported evidence mentioned by the US in support of its findings has been verified by credible and independent players.

The official White House statement emphasises the key role played by the US intelligence community in gathering evidence. At the latest, since the Iraq experience the world has lived with the knowledge that intelligence communities dance to the tune of their political masters, and are absolutely unreliable where information-gathering and fact-finding are concerned. A shadow of doubt hangs over all purported evidence submitted by the US, the UK and France in support of their findings. It has just been confirmed that some information relied upon by the US has been sourced from Israeli intelligence. These are all interested parties with political axes to grind.

Under massive political pressure at home and abroad, Obama has now back-flipped, abandoning his previous insistence on a chain of custody. He is now willing to run with the kind of mickey mouse evidence that was misused to justify the US war on Iraq. Former President Bill Clinton’s recent attack on Obama’s Syria policy, deliberately leaked to the media, may have been the last straw. The all-powerful Clinton Democrat dynasty, temporarily disempowered in 2008, is now striking back.

Under these circumstances, the correct procedure would have been for the US to submit its unverified and methodologically dubious claims to Dr Ake Sellström, the head of the UN fact-finding mission to Syria, for independent evaluation. Only if the UN team found that US claims were credible would they form a solid foundation for military policy-making in relation to Syria. Instead the US, under domestic and regional pressures reinforced by relentless harrying from its French and British allies, has opted to confront the UN team with a political decision based on its own in-house evidence, which lacks even a shred of independent corroboration. 

This also applies political pressure on the UN team to confirm the US findings. Given the international importance of the US decision on Syria, the UN Secretary General should request Dr Sellström to submit as a matter of urgency an interim report on the merits of the US evidence. He should publicly instruct Dr Sellström to disregard the political pressures to which he and his team are subjected and to function impartially, in the spirit prescribed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for OPCW inspections. Dr Sellström has already stated that the "validity of the information is not ensured in the absence of convincing evidence of the chain-of-custody of the data collected."

More problematic still, the White House statement says that decision-making on this matter was guided by both the April US intelligence assessment and “the regime’s escalation of horrific violence against its citizens." In plain English, the US finding that chemical weapons were used is partly based on its concern about recent military advances by the Syrian army and its ally Hezbollah. This confirms that political factors weighed heavily when the US intelligence community determined and 'verified' whether chemical weapons had been used. But verification is by definition a scientific, non-political process of independently considering and assessing evidence and arriving at conclusions on that basis.

The White House’s false claims about rebel use of chemical weapons

The White House statement says there is no reason to think that rebel forces have access to chemical weapons: “We have no reliable, corroborated, reported indication that the opposition has acquired or used chemical weapons." This assumption is critically important, circumstantially speaking. If the rebels are known to possess chemical weapons, it is possible that western claims of chemical weapons use by Syrian armed forces might be attributable, not to Syria’s armed forces, but to rebel use, or to samples contaminated by rebel forces. This would further weaken the west’s claim that chemical weapons have, with a high degree of probability, been used by Syrian armed forces.

When the White House makes such a claim, it is based on the collective knowledge of the US diplomatic, defence, and intelligence communities, from the enormous resources they have at their disposal. It is therefore truly remarkable that they overlooked the following information:

 - Iraqi authorities have recently arrested four Al Qaeda members who were preparing sarin and mustard gas in a home-made laboratory. The Al Qaeda members apparently admitted that the chemical weapons were being produced, at least partly, for related networks.

  •  - It then became known that Turkish authorities had arrested militants linked to the Al Nusra Front in possession of a cylinder of sarin at a location on the Turkish border with Syria. The provenance of this sarin is not known at this stage. But it is at least possible that it could have come from the Iraqi laboratory mentioned above, as the Al Nusra Front is closely interlinked with Al Qaeda.

 - The Russians have clearly been following all of this with great interest. It struck them that Erdoğan played down the story about Al Nusra chemical weapons in Turkey, which is in political cahoots with the west over Syria. So the Russians went public, formally requesting Turkey to provide more information on the sarin seized by its authorities. You can almost hear Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov licking his chops as he said, “We would like to shed light on all these questions because the issue of chemical weapons has become a focus of speculation and provocation. I do not rule out that someone would like to use it to declare that a red line has been crossed and foreign intervention is needed”. The US and others looked the other way. The Cold War mentality that automatically designates any Russian statement as beyond the pale still persists at the highest level.

 - Now Syrian armed forces claim that they have also found cylinders of sarin left by rebels in the al-Faraieh neighbourhood in Hama, Syria. It would be interesting to know whether these cylinders replicate the cylinder discovered in Turkey.

 - US experts seemingly also overlooked the remarkable disclosure by former chief UN War Crimes Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, in her capacity as a member of the UN mandated commission of enquiry on the Syria conflict. She said there were strong suspicions that sarin gas had been used by the rebels and not by Syrian authorities. Del Ponte is a heavyweight lawyer who has operated at the high end of the UN system. She did not make this surprise revelation by accident.

One can arrive at two possible conclusions in relation to the false claim in the White House report. Either all US government agencies were unaware of the above publicly sourced evidence which, in the case of Iraq and Turkey can be corroborated by those governments, or they swept it under the carpet in the interest of maintaining a story which strengthened their case. Sadly, the latter appears to be the more likely explanation.

The Syrian government has also denounced US claims as lies. The Russians, who have seen the US intelligence, have dismissed it as “not convincing," in the words of Yury Ushakov, an aide to President Vladimir Putin. Ushakov could not resist the temptation to refer to “the famous lab tube that Secretary of State Powell showed [to the UN Security Council], but the facts don’t look convincing in our eyes". Lavrov has stressed “that such a step [military support] risks escalating [violence] in the region, while accusations against Damascus of the use of chemical weapons by the United States are not backed up by verified facts."

The demise of the responsibility to protect

The Russians and Chinese will block any attempt to use the UNSC as a launching pad for anything that could be a western military intervention in disguise. In abstaining UNSC Resolution 1973 - what NATO claimed would be a purely humanitarian intervention in Libya - they waveringly gave the west the benefit of the doubt, and accepted these protestations at face value. When the west exceeded its humanitarian UNSC mandate by supporting regime change and eliminating Gaddafi, China and Russia felt that their begrudging trust had been betrayed.

This means that, at least for the time being, the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P) is dead in the water at UNSC level. In today’s multipolar world, it is noteworthy that Brazil, Germany, and India, which also swallowed their major reservations and refrained from voting on the situation in Libya, now share Russia and China’s sense of disillusionment with the R2P doctrine.

Given the extraordinary risk of any form of intervention in Syria, the US would compound that risk if it became involved unilaterally or with another coalition of the willing. Acute European war weariness with surrogate US wars far from Europe, coupled with post-Libya syndrome as well as political instability and economic destabilisation at home, now mean that the great majority of NATO states, led by Germany, have signalled their unwillingness to intervene. 

NATO accordingly has no mandate to act in relation to Syria and has publicly acknowledged this. Under immense pressure from France and the UK, the EU has agreed to permit the few member states that want to contribute weapons to do so, but only after the proposed peace conference, which appears increasingly unlikely to materialise in the near future. 

The US is now trying to use its absolutely unproven chemical weapons intelligence to panic Germany into supporting military action against Syria. If Germany changes position on involvement in Syria, there would at least be a chance that the rest of the EU might gradually cave. But this plan has come undone as Angela Merkel is still doggedly sticking to her guns, invoking the German Constitution. The US, the UK, and France are desperate for the legitimacy that would be conferred by NATO support;the extent of their military involvement will be critically determined by this.

Without the UNSC and NATO, what options are open to the west? 

Given the prevailing political impasse at both UNSC and NATO levels, the only hope for those who are still actively pushing for a form of military intervention – France and the UK – would lie in a major find of chemical weapons that could be attributed to the Syrian army. But because Syria’s political and military leadership lives with the knowledge that any chemical weapons use on their part would certainly trigger loud calls for a foreign military intervention, they will go to extreme lengths to avoid providing a casus belli

And amidst all the hype about Syria preventing the UN from inspecting sites of alleged chemical weapons use, western media appear to have forgotten that it was Syria that first approached the UN with a specific invitation to inspect a site near Aleppo. Syria would never have issued such an invitation to the international community if there had been even a remote possibility of a finding that could have blown up in its own face. The Syrian government was clearly of the view that an independent UN investigation would verify that rebels had indeed used the chemical weapons in question. Russia publicly expressed this view at the time. 

Knowing this, rebel groups and their western and Middle Eastern backers have come up with allegations of their own, many of which appeared slightly far-fetched even before the current finds of sarin in the hands of Al Qaeda and the Al Nusra Front. The UN Secretary General botched negotiations with the Syrians by insisting, amongst other things, on “unfettered access” to any site rebels claimed had been involved in chemical weapons use, which would require any claim by rebels to be inspected, opening Syria to scrutiny by external intelligence agencies, as was the case with UN inspections in Iraq. With external encouragement, rebels could have concocted as many chemical weapons allegations as possible to ensure that UN inspectors would traverse large areas of Syria. 

In the meantime western media have been coming up with almost daily claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, interestingly enough with sarin as the flavour of the month. National media are slavishly pursuing the political agenda of their governments. It is Iraq all over again.

 Is the Chemical Weapons Convention in danger of obsolescence?

These finds of chemical weapons in three different rebel locations also blow a symbolic hole in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, one of whose key assumptions is that only governments and the chemical industry would be able to develop and produce chemical weapons. Militant non-state entities in conflict with states, capable of being supported by an international operational network, were not even a figment of the Cold War imagination.

Al Qaeda is now well established in various unstable parts of the Middle East and the Islamic Magreb. This is the second occasion in which it has produced chemical weapons in Iraq. It will almost certainly continue to develop its now proven capability to produce chemical agents, possibly in other more unstable parts of the region.

Al Qaeda has demonstrated that whether in civil war situations and in failed or failing states, or countries that are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention - like Iraq -, anyone who really wants to produce chemical weapons can now do so, in small backyard laboratories making effective use of techniques and technology that did not exist when the CWC was negotiated.

Is the Chemical Weapons Convention already obsolete, just 20 years after it was opened for signature? While governments are going through the motions of destroying their own chemical weapons, entrepreneurial non-governmental organisations like Al Qaeda can develop and exploit the niche market these governments are creating. This is a more than slightly scary scenario.

About the author

Bob Rigg is former senior editor with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a former chair of the New Zealand National Consultative Committee on Disarmament. He is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in nuclear issues, the Middle East, Central Asia, and US foreign policy.


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