Syrian officials’ ‘panicked calls’ prove culpability, US says

Information pointing to Assad also includes Israeli intel showing regime moved chemical weapons to site of attack

Victims of an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, Wednesday, August 21, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Shaam News Network)
Victims of an attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, Wednesday, August 21, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Shaam News Network)

Last Wednesday’s chemical attack in an eastern suburb of Damascus that killed hundreds caused panic within the ranks of the Assad regime and has been raising questions in the West about the Assad regime’s control over its own nonconventional stockpiles, according to US intelligence sources.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the US intercepted panicked phone calls between defense officials in Damascus and the commander of a chemical weapons unit demanding details about the strike, Foreign Policy reported early Wednesday.

The report comes just days after a report in a major German publication claiming that an IDF intelligence unit had listened in on similar conversations between senior Syrian officials discussing the chemical attack.

According to the report in the German magazine Focus, a squad specializing in wire-tapping within the IDF’s 8200 signals intelligence unit intercepted a phone call between high-ranking regime officials regarding the use of chemical agents at the time of the attack. The German report cited an ex-Mossad official saying the intercepted conversation proved the Assad regime was responsible for the attack.

An American intelligence official, speaking to Foreign Policy, noted that while the phone calls intercepted by US intelligence proved that regime forces had perpetrated the attack, they also raised disturbing questions about the regime’s control over its large stockpiles of chemical weapons — considered one of the largest in the world — including its arsenal of deadly nerve gas of the type thought to have been used in last week’s attack.

“It’s unclear where control lies,” the official was quoted as saying. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

Israel TV reported last week that a unit under the command of President Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher, fired the shells in the attack last Wednesday.

The official did not mince words regarding the American assessment of the wisdom of the strike. “We don’t know exactly why it happened. We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.” The official repeated the comment later in the report, saying of the attack: “It’s horrible, it’s stupid.”

Despite Washington’s certainty over the source of the attack, many US intelligence officials supported letting the UN investigation of the incident run its course before the US follows through on recent threats to conduct punitive strikes against the Assad regime. But the official suggested a US attack was extremely likely. “Whatever happens in the next few days — they get what they deserve.”

US officials’ belief that the regime perpetrated the attack is not based only on the phone interceptions, the official indicated. US weapons experts confirmed that the dozens of videos produced by rebel groups showing victims of the strike were consistent with the aftermath of a nerve agent attack. In addition, missiles used in the attack were not destroyed upon landing, suggesting that their warheads were filled with something other than conventional explosives.

US intelligence officials told the Washington Post on Wednesday that they had established a timeline for the attack. A report on the strike, which Obama administration officials said would prove it was committed by the regime, is expected to be released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as early as Thursday.

An American official cited by AP said the report would include signals intelligence — information gathered from intercepted communications. The report would also be based on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed, and eyewitness accounts. The officials who offered the details to press outlets insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.

Officials told the Wall Street Journal that evidence would include satellite imagery. Arab diplomats were also quoted by the paper to the effect that a crucial piece of the intelligence puzzle was provided by Israel, whose spy services discovered that chemical weapons of the type used in the attack were moved in advance to the site of the strike. The report said the Israeli intelligence had been verified by the CIA.

On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden said there was no doubt that Assad’s government was responsible for the heinous use of chemical weapons. Biden’s comments make him the highest-ranking US official to finger the Syrian regime in the attack.

Biden said the Syrian government is the only actor in the two-year civil war that possesses and can deliver chemical weapons. He echoed Kerry in saying Assad has blocked UN investigators from the site of the attack and has been bombing it for days.

The United Nations said Tuesday that its team of chemical weapons investigators in Syria had delayed a second trip to investigate the alleged attack by one day for security reasons. On Monday, the team came under sniper fire.

While President Barack Obama hasn’t settled on how to respond to the attack, according to the White House, America’s top defense planner said Tuesday that US forces are ready to act on any order by the president.

The Arab League also threw its weight behind calls for punitive action, blaming the Syrian government for the attack and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament to hold an emergency vote Thursday on his country’s response. It is unlikely that any international military action would begin before then.

Russia, Syria and Iran have warned of grave consequences should action be taken.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that the West should be under no illusion that bombing Syrian military targets would help end the violence in Syria, a staunch ally of Moscow, and he pointed to the volatile situations in Iraq and Libya that he said resulted from foreign military intervention.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country would use “all means available” to counter an attack.

“We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone,” he said.

If Obama decides to order a strike against Syria, it would most likely involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military and communications targets. The US Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea within range of targets inside Syria. The US also has warplanes in the region.

In Cyprus, Defense Minister Fotis Fotiou said naval traffic in the eastern Mediterranean was very heavy with vessels from “all the major powers.” He also said Cypriot authorities were planning to deal with a possible exodus of foreign nationals from Syria.

The prospect of US military intervention in Syria was running into fierce opposition from some members of Congress. A growing chorus of Republican and Democratic lawmakers demanded that Obama seek congressional authorization for any strikes against the Assad regime.

Charles Heyman, a former British officer who edits The Armed Forces of the UK, said the lack of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the Syrian government greatly complicates matters for the West. He said that may make it difficult for Cameron to win parliamentary backing.

“It’s clear the governments want some form of military operation, but if the Security Council doesn’t recommend it, then the consensus is that it’s plainly illegal under international law,” Heyman said. “The only legal way to go to war is in self-defense and that claim is difficult to make.”

Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, has steadfastly opposed any international action against Syria.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said her country would not back any military action against Syria unless it was authorized by the Security Council — even though it considers a chemical attack to be a war crime.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Monday that if the Syrian government were proven to have been behind the gas attack, then Germany would support “consequences.” But with less than four weeks until national elections, it is unlikely Germany would commit any forces.

Center-left opposition parties have rejected military intervention without UN proof that the Syrian government was behind the attack. And a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party said the German military was already at “the breaking point” due to commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Support for some sort of international military response is likely to grow if it is confirmed that Assad’s regime was responsible.

In a veiled allusion to difficulties in getting any strong action through the Security Council, France’s President Francois Hollande said that “international law must evolve with the times. It cannot be a pretext to allow mass massacres to be perpetrated.”

He went on to invoke France’s recognition of “the responsibility to protect civilian populations” that the UN General Assembly approved in 2005.

Obama discussed Syria on Tuesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, a NATO ally, and in recent days with Cameron, Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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