Anonymous “Intelligence Officials” Contemplated a Rogue CW Attack 8 Months Ago

In my Syria post last night, I expressed vague feelings that the alleged preparations of chemical weapons back in December might offer some insight into last week’s attack.

Here’s one way they might.

CIA beat reporter Joby Warrick did a story explaining that incident. We learned of that incident through one of the same kinds of intelligence — according to WSJ — we learned of last week’s attack, surveillance images.

Soldiers at one Syrian base were monitored mixing precursors for chemical weapons and taking other steps to ready the lethal munitions for battlefield use, the officials said. It was the first hard evidence that Syria was moving toward possible activation of its vast arsenal of chemical weapons, which includes nerve gas and other poisons.

Surveillance photos confirmed that at least one army unit began loading special military vehicles that transport bombs and artillery shells carrying chemical warheads, according to the officials. The moves followed specific orders to elite troops to begin preparations for the use of the weapons against advancing rebel fighters, the officials said.

But in spite of the fact that someone (the Israelis again?) captured these photos, analysts had the same questions about that incident they do now: who ordered the mobilization of the CW?

Intelligence analysts said the orders to prepare the weapons were issued about two weeks ago. They said it was not clear whether the decision came from senior Syrian leaders, possibly including President Bashar al-Assad, or from a field commander acting on his own, the officials said.

“Orders were issued.” That same passive voice.

In response to the incident, “intelligence officials” raised the possibility that an individual commander might release the CW without orders from Assad.

Still, the discovery that steps had been taken to activate weapons at at least one military base alarmed intelligence officials, because of fears that a single commander could unleash the deadly poisons without orders from higher up the chain of command.

[snip]

Although Assad is aware of the dire consequences of using chemical weapons, individual commanders could take matters into their own hands if their positions are being overrun, said a Middle Eastern intelligence official briefed on the latest intelligence findings.

“Once you’ve used the weapons, you know the world is coming after you,” the official said. “But if you’re a general and you think you’re not going to survive this, you might not care.”

Of course, back then, amid predictions Assad’s imminent fall might lead to such desperation, Warrick’s sources suggested using CW against an insurgency doesn’t make much sense.

Chemical weapons such as sarin are designed for use against massed concentrations of troops and are not regarded as particularly effective against insurgencies in close-combat situations. Yet, a large-scale use of such munitions could devastate the rebels by causing panic and, potentially, thousands of casualties.

It also talked about the lingering effects of sarin, which no one seems to have worried about here.

Depending on the type and quantity of weapons used, the attackers could deny access to large swaths of territory because of the long-lasting effects of the poisons. Nerve agents such as sarin are so deadly that a small drop on the skin can kill a person. Even the task of removing or treating victims of a chemical attack can prove deadly for rescue workers and physicians, weapons experts say.

Obviously, circumstances in Syria last week were dramatically different than those imagined in December: notably, Assad is in much stronger position against the rebels than he was then. That of course makes it even stranger than either Assad or a rogue field commander would unleash the CW.

Most of all, though, I find it interesting that intelligence sources contemplated a rogue commander back in December. Why are sources not doing so here, even in spite of evidence that Syrian officials made panicked calls demanding answers?

That doesn’t explain who is responsible for the attack, at all.

But I do find it notable.

Update: Rather than considering the theory intelligence officials floated back in December, they’re apparently now working on a new one. Nevermind what that is. What’s interesting is this.

Salim Idris, commander of the Free Syrian Army, said sources in Assad’s inner circle tell him that’s exactly what happened.

[snip]

Idris also indicated that pressure also has been growing on Assad to respond to a series of rebel advances.

At least in my opinion, the fact that we’re developing theories on what happened from Idris’ sources in Assad’s inner circle — which of course means there are people in Assad’s inner circle who are not loyal to Assad and are in communication with Idris — is bigger news than whatever crazyass theory he’s advancing.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. joanneleon says:

    A bit off topic. Last night I had CNN on the TV, half listening. At one point they had a report from a CNN journalist in Damascus. I took notice because they made a point of saying that he was the only Western reporter left in Damascus at that point. What he said next, I didn’t quite catch, but he said something about something being “down”. I thought he then said that they had to use phone. I don’t know if he was saying that their satellite was down, or the internet, or what. I was wondering if anyone else saw that report and heard what he said. I didn’t catch his name but it should be easy to figure out since he was the only Western reporter in Syria.

  2. orionATL says:

    ah, the “rogue commander” joins the “rogue banker” and other individual, phantom “jokers” convenient to explaining system dysfunction to hoi polloi.

  3. TimothyLeary says:

    Marcy,

    I consider myself a student of the duplicitous nature of intelligence work, and wonder if it is too outside the bounds of proper debate to suggest that possibly an intelligence agency interested in US intervention in Syria could have falsified the radio transmissions. To wit, recall Victor Ostrovsky’s “By Way Of Deception.” An excerpt of it can be read here: http://whatreallyhappened.com/WRHARTICLES/deception.html

    I, in no uncertain terms, DO NOT endorse the viewpoints of 9/11 truthers or reckless conspiracy theorists. It pains me that I have to cite a truther website, but no other excerpt was available online. Ostrovsky’s account checks out from what I’ve researched. It’s foolish to disregard his experience.

  4. rugger9 says:

    What’s going to be interesting is that if/when the USA strikes Assad, the Russians will have to respond to that missile attack since Assad is their ally and it’s all of their CW stuff anyway. Oh, and they have a large naval base at Tarsus where they just renewed the lease this year, indicating commitment.

    The reports I’ve seen only mentioned 4 missile destroyers in the area. I’d be very surprised that there isn’t a carrier too, because while the COs of the DDGs will be competing for the thrill to blast Assad, what will keep Ivan in check here is the carrier battle group.

    We don’t have any good guys here, and this could be a trigger to a very big regional war if Putin decides to “display his manliness” again. Heck, he’s spent all of that time doing photo shoots and rugged outdoorsy stuff, so it seems Putin has p___s envy issues or something and we don’t want to know just he “inadequate” he feels. Let Congress do their job for a change. Let the UN report first. Don’t repeat W’s stupidity, especially given that Obama doesn’t need to do any more macho stuff after OBL was removed.

  5. rugger9 says:

    @orionATL: In this case it may have a little more truth to it. It’s a constant about dictatorships that just about every general thinks they will become the supreme leader, and this gives them the political credibility.

  6. chris harries says:

    We are dealing with the sort of “evidence” that no Humane Society would allow as justification for hanging a dog.
    Everything points to the likelihood that this “massacre”, first reported in a paper owned by Prince Bandar’s cousin and “confirmed” by Mossad “intercepts”, was set up by the “rebels.”
    What is absolutely certain is that no case has been made for the extraordinary breach of international law that an attack on Syria by the US and its satraps would constitute.
    Your suggestion, that “rogue” elements in the Syrian forces are responsible, seems marginally more credible than the theory that the Syrian government ordered a sarin gas attack on civilians. But, sadly, much less likely than a provocation set up by the salafi takfiri bands armed, trained and organised by the United States, the other NATO powers and the kleptocrats of the Gulf, who have been promoting civil war between shia and sunni Arabs for years.

  7. JThomason says:

    Now we know what a Democratic administration means: France will be allowed top line billing in any attack upon Syria.

  8. Adam Colligan says:

    Say this actually were a rogue deployment. If Assad wants to try to deny responsibility and point out the unit responsible, he’s welcome to. If Sum-of-All-Fears-style, he thinks it’s better to own it rather than show weakness by admitting he’s lost control, then he gets to own it, and all of his forces get to each the bombs. If the purpose of the strike is to deter future actors in his position from using CW or putting them in a position to be used, I’m not exactly feeling the outrage, even if it were a rogue use.

  9. Lana Carson says:

    Interesting how the NYT indicates the Obama administration is not including the “intercepted phone calls” trumpeted in Foreign Policy in its presentation. Yet NYT is unsure of how much, if any, of the proof the admin does claim to have (better, more definitive phone calls!) will be shared with the public!

    Also, first the admin says they don’t need the UN to tell them what they “already know,” yet, according to the Times piece, “American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation.”

    Yes, it does seem that there are “holes in the intelligence report.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/29/world/middleeast/us-facing-test-on-data-to-back-action-on-syria.html?hp

  10. Nigel says:

    Of course, back then, amid predictions Assad’s imminent fall might lead to such desperation, Warrick’s sources suggested using CW against an insurgency doesn’t make much sense.

    I don’t buy that.

    The Syrian regime had been bombarding that suburb of Damascus for the last twelve months, and made little or no progress in ‘pacifying’ it.
    Chemical weapons really aren’t very effective against prepared troops – they may have been ‘designed’ for use against massed troops, but that was a century ago, and they proved largely ineffective in conventional war.
    They could however be very effective weapons for dealing with a stubborn civilian uprising (and produce far less ‘collateral’ damage to infrastructure than conventional weapons), so there is some justification for serious concern.

    I don’t support a strike against Syria (and certainly not without a UN resolution), but I don’t think we should minimise the significance of this chemical attack, and indeed the danger of its repetition on a larger scale.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @Nigel: Who’s minimizing the significance? I’m pointing out at least some evidence suggests rebels did it. Which makes far more sense, your suggestion notwithstanding.

  12. Nigel says:

    @emptywheel:

    I’m pointing out at least some evidence suggests rebels did it.
    Fair enough – I don’t disagree that there is reasonable doubt over who’s responsible.

    Which makes far more sense, your suggestion notwithstanding
    Have to disagree on that, if only because there’s no good evidence for the rebels possessing chemical weapons with that capability (though there is evidence of their desire to obtain it) – and if they did, I think it far more likely they would have used them in an assassination attempt against the regime leadership rather than an uncertain ‘provocation’ as you suggest.

    I am deeply skeptical of both our governments’ actions regarding Syria, but I am inclined to accord them slightly more credibility, and rather more moral compunction, than the Syrian regime.

  13. joanneleon says:

    @rugger9: The CW came from the Russians? I missed that fact somewhere along the way. “Russians will have to respond to that missile attack since Assad is their ally and it’s all of their CW stuff anyway”

  14. Adam Colligan says:

    @emptywheel: I was referring to the scenario of the post, in which “reality” is a rogue use, and the attempt to put it on the rebels is as transparently BS as the US and UK governments are saying.

  15. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @Nigel: No evidence against the rebels?

    1. The UN has already determined the rebels have used CW.
    2. Rebel groups were caught smuggling Sarin into Syria from Turkey.

  16. JohnT says:

    @JohnT: To ease on down that road (from my link)

    Perhaps adding some credibility to fears that Syrian rebels could potentially use chlorine, militants in neighboring Iraq used chlorine bombs several times in 2007. Some Syrian fighters with the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra are believed to have ties to Iraqi extremists.

    Not sure, but I think it’s a good bet that Jabhat al-Nusra is an al Qaeda linked Libyan org

    Edit: yes, they are

    Video was placed on YouTube today of Syrian rebels celebrating a crushing victory in Mayadin, a town in Syria’s oil-rich northeast last week.

    The cameraman is traveling in a convoy of fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra, the main jihadi fighting group in eastern Libya and one that has attracted veterans of both the war against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya last year and of the wars against the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Backchannels/2012/1127/Syria-s-Jabhat-al-Nusra-militia-looks-pretty-serious

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