After vociferous claims that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the horrific chemical-weapons attacks on an opposition-held Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, both the British and American governments have now come forward with public presentations of their secret intelligence evidence. This might seem like a bad-dream replay of the events prior to the Iraq invasion in 2003, but it is not, although concerns will inevitably linger about the quality and politicization of intelligence estimates.
The British were first of out the gate with their intelligence report, released on Aug. 29, and it served David Cameron’s government ill. The statement by the U.K. Joint Intelligence Committee was weak, and notable for its reliance on deductions rather than on intelligence evidence of Assad regime involvement in the chemical-weapons attacks. What the JIC was able to say was that there was a pattern of prior Syrian regime use of chemical weapons, that the opposition did not have the capability to either deploy or launch with rocket systems chemical warfare agents, and that the regime had a motive in trying to further tip the military balance against the opposition forces still holed up in the Damascus suburbs.
But the JIC also confessed that it had only a “limited” body of evidence directly linking the Assad regime to the attack and that it lacked insight into the Assad regime’s motivations for carrying out such a bloody attack. This paltry intelligence report, lined up alongside doubts about the legality of military intervention, and confusion about the strategic objectives to be served, killed David Cameron’s search for parliamentary agreement on UK military involvement in a Western punitive strike against Syria. On Thursday, the House of Commons voted against a military action in Syria. It was a stunning defeat for the British Prime Minister and a great blow to the UK-U.S. “special relationship.” How Mr. Cameron’s government will attempt to dig itself out of the hole it has created remains to be seen.
The U.S. intelligence assessment of the Syrian chemical-weapons attack was released a day later, on Aug. 30, in conjunction with an emotive and hard-hitting speech by the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. Mr. Kerry reminded the world that there was no doubt who was behind the attack and also laid out a new death toll: U.S. estimates now place the casualty figures from the Aug. 21 attack at 1,429 civilians including 426 children, a truly staggering toll enacted by a weapon meant to be banned from battlefield use since the experience of the First World War. On Saturday, following his own speech, President Barack Obama requested Congressional approval for a limited military action against the Assad regime in Syria.
The United States and Britain routinely share a great deal of intelligence, but on this occasion the U.S. intelligence report was stronger and sharper, as it had to be. There were elements in common between the two estimates, including the attention given to a pattern of regime use of chemical warfare and to a notion that what might have prompted the attack was regime “frustration” at the ability of the Syrian opposition to continue to hold onto areas of Damascus even while the fighting had swung in favour of the government in other parts of the country.
But what stood out in the U.S. intelligence report was the kind of evidence obtained from spy satellites and communications intercepts that link the Syrian regime to the attack. This evidence included spy-satellite observations that pinpointed the rocket launches and hits associated with the Aug. 21 assault as well as contributory evidence on the movement and preparations of Syrian chemical-warfare units. Communications, or signals intelligence (the job of the National Security Agency) snared intelligence relating to preparations for the assault, damning evidence about a cease-and-desist order issued on the afternoon of Aug. 21, as well as communications from a “senior official” in the Syrian government who confirmed that chemical weapons were used on August 21 and was worried about the United Nations finding out.
This is as close to conclusive as an intelligence system is likely to get. It provides the Obama administration with sufficient evidence to back up a military strike.
What the U.S. intelligence on public display does not indicate with any certainty is the ability of American intelligence assets, including spy satellites and signal interception, to identify chemical-warfare targets in real time in Syria to allow for pinpoint attacks. It is one thing to comb the evidence retrospectively, another to follow what will be an even more dispersed Syrian chemical-warfare capability in the aftermath of August 21. The U.S. intelligence also falls short of claiming knowledge about who was directly responsible for ordering the attack. This is a critical piece of the puzzle and we can hope that it can be filled in. Without clarity about significant targets for military action, especially chemical warfare units, storage sites, and delivery systems, and a reasonable certainty about who gave the Syrian orders, Mr. Obama’s desired “shot across the bow” of the Syrian regime is likely to prove futile, or worse.
Wesley Wark is a Visiting Research Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on intelligence.