General Idris’ Close Watch on Assad’s CW

In a piece summarizing the current state of intelligence, the AP reveals how uncertain US intelligence is about chain of control over Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.

Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad’s supplies of chemical weapons, and Assad could have moved them in recent days as U.S. rhetoric builds. That lack of certainty means a possible series of U.S. cruise missile strikes aimed at crippling Assad’s military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly chemical attack.

Over the past six months, with shifting front lines in the 2½-year-old civil war and sketchy satellite and human intelligence coming out of Syria, U.S. and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies, according to one senior U.S. intelligence official and three other U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence shared by the White House as reason to strike Syria’s military complex. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the Syrian issue publicly.

U.S. satellites have captured images of Syrian troops moving trucks into weapons storage areas and removing materials, but U.S. analysts have not been able to track what was moved or, in some cases, where it was relocated. They are also not certain that when they saw what looked like Assad’s forces moving chemical supplies, those forces were able to remove everything before rebels took over an area where weapons had been stored. [my emphasis]

8 days after an attack they say they’re certain came from Assad loyalists, the intelligence community says it doesn’t know where all the CW are, doesn’t know who controls it all, and has questions about whether rebels seized (or took) CW after they were moved into place by Syrian forces.

With that in mind, I want to return to the stunning report from NBC last night that casually quotes General Salim Idris, head of the Free Syrian Army, claiming he has “sources” in Assad’s inner circle.

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


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

Not only does the report show Idris claiming — effectively — that people in Assad’s inner circle are so disloyal that they not only continue to communicate with him, but provide key intelligence about how much pressure Assad is under.

Let’s take a step back.

Idris defected — at least publicly — from Assad’s army last July, around the same time as then CIA Director David Petraeus and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully lobbied to start arming the rebels, and the month before Obama laid out chemical weapon use as his “red line.”

Idris was elected — thanks to a lot of arm twisting by US and its allies — to command the Free Syrian Army in December, just weeks after a chemical weapons incident I’ve been obsessing on. Shortly after his election, Idris gave a number of interviews in which he emphasized two things: that his people had an eye on Assad’s CW, and that Assad would use them if he got cornered.

The new Syrian rebel commander has told The Associated Press that his fighters are monitoring the regime’s chemical weapons sites, but don’t have the means to seize and secure them.

Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from the Syrian army in July, says he is “very afraid” a cornered regime will use chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest chemical arsenals.

Effectively, Idris was repeating the line intelligence analysts had given just weeks earlier (or they had been repeating what he told them), even while suggesting his men were the ones watching over the CW.

Since that time, Idris’ authority has been in question, largely because his value to the rebels lay in his purported ability to work with America’s allies to supply them. In March, he wrote up the complaints he had been making — that the US wasn’t giving rebels the arms they needed.

[T]here is only so much that can be done without the determined support of the United States. What Syrians need today to bring an end to the conflict are anti-aircraft weapons systems, not more words.


The United States’ hands-off approach in Syria is only exacerbating the conflict by allowing anti-American and extremist elements to gain a stronger foothold in the country.

Shortly thereafter — at a time when even Idris admitted the rebels’ own weakness — he issued a call for Syrian military personnel to defect immediately or be held responsible. Within days, a top General did so, but his defection had been in the works for some time.

The new defector, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nour Ezzedeen Khallouf, the army’s chief of supplies and logistics, appeared briefly on Saturday in a broadcast on Al Arabiya.

“Arrangements for the defection from the current Assad regime started a while ago,” he said. “There was coordination with several sides from various factions of the Syrian revolution.”

Then in June, the rebels claimed to have hit Assad’s motorcade as part of an assassination attempt — a claim that may have been overblown, but appears to have worried Assad.

And that is what Idris now claims — and American analyst are now considering for potential motive — led Assad to retaliate with a big CW attack.

Nevermind that story doesn’t explain why Assad would retaliate with CW rather than conventional weapons. Nor does it explain why Assad would respond to evidence (the assassination attempt) that rebel sources might have inside information on his location by launching the CW that would give outside forces the excuse to get involved.

8 months after claiming his men had close watch over Assad’s CW, Idris is now admitting that he’s got people very close to Assad. Even as the IC admits it doesn’t know who actually has Assad’s CW.

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.

27 replies
  1. Ben Franklin says:

    Grasping at straws. I mean, I’m glad there aren’t Rummys declaring a slam-dunk, but this is pretty thin. They tried to horn in Putin with the Saudi bribe, and as I expected the testosterone requires some response from Russia, so a few daggers are rattling in the Med.

  2. orionATL says:

    let’s see now, we have this spying behemouth called nsa that collects all the information in the world all the time.

    surely these boys didn’t lose track of assad and generals and chemical storage. or were they just not looking in that haystack?

    what a crock the value of this nsa spying machine is.

  3. Snoopdido says:

    This is off topic, but Senator Diane Feinstein gets even sillier by the minute – Feinstein Opposes Verizon, AT&T Holding NSA Phone Records –

    “U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein opposes requiring phone companies including Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) to retain surveillance records now given to the National Security Agency.

    The California Democrat decided it would be too costly and complex for companies to maintain the data after reviewing an NSA analysis of how it would work, according to a committee aide who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.

    “Senator Feinstein opposes storing the metadata with the telecommunication companies themselves,” her spokesman, Brian Weiss, said in a statement.”

    Unpacking her opposition:

    1. It is too costly for the telecommunication companies to store the metadata they already store.

    2. It is too complex for the telecommunication companies to store the metadata they already store.

    3. It is too hard for the telecommunication companies to make the metadata searchable that they already have made searchable.

    And this is our vaunted Congressional intelligence oversight? If there is an organization that is the exact opposite of Mensa, Senator Diane Feinstein fits their profile.

  4. P J Evans says:

    I think maybe they should run her through an exam for mental functioning. Either she’s losing it, or she’s so gullible that she believes everything they’re telling her.

  5. Ben Franklin says:

    Ed Millband was called a f****** c*** by an unnamed government official for obstructing Cameron’s need for imminent war. Too funny.

    They thought they could just trot this shit out again. No problem.

  6. rg says:

    Thank you for this informative review. It raises for me questions about Idris’ motive for his defection. One possibility is that he has a vision for Syria that is incompatible with Assad’s policies regarding CW, or some other issue that prompts a patriotic stance. Another is he was turned by some foreign force and was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. Here the CW issue is just a tactical means to justify regime change (which we’ve seen before), and the means to undermine an Iranian ally.

  7. Clark Hilldale says:

    Good on you, EW, for calling out the patent absurdity of Gen Idris announcing publicly that he has penetrations within Assad’s inner circle.

    It is indeed bullshit by default (no matter how good the media operators might think it sounds).

    Probably the oldest trick in counterintelligence is to have your enemy see false reporting that you have a mole (or moles) in the enemy organization. The enemy will devour itself if they believe the reports.

    The flip side to that tactic is that if you have a real penetration of the enemy organization you will go to unbelievable lengths to conceal this fact.

    As you indicate, Idris may have some utility (or may not) to an intelligence agency defector inducement program, but it would be unlikely in the extreme that a blowhard like him would be allowed anywhere near a sensitive CI penetration operation.

    Idris is a figurehead that Western intelligence can claim to their legislative overseers (whatever that means anymore) is an important person to justify pissing away $$$ on this futile Covert Action.

    And I would agree with you that the whole “CW as retaliation for assassination attempt against Assad” story is fanciful.

  8. Jessica says:

    I have yet to see anyone that is pushing for intervention explain exactly why they think Assad would gas civilians, especially if you factor in the motive of retaliation for an assassination attempt. What it god’s name would that accomplish? The problem is that our government, along with our like-minded “allies”, present these heads of states as crazy, deranged maniacs – so don’t even try to use logic. Just trust us. The trouble is, most of the time, this is not true. But logic be damned, I guess.

    (Edited for clarity)

  9. Adam Colligan says:

    @Jessica: Why would anyone do it then? Why would Saddam? Sorry to Godwin it, but why would Hitler gas large numbers of people in certain areas or social groups? Are all atrocities just part of some made-up, false-flag conspiracy network?

    The fact that Assad is in some ways a rational actor and uses logic does not mean that he won’t do things that are horrific, highly risky, or both. A year ago, most people were saying that he was suicidal for not fleeing the country; *now* look. And he’s probably been testing the waters of the red line with CW use for many weeks now.

    In short, why would anyone do something the would seem sure to prompt a punishing and unprofitable response? It’s easy to understand if they’re willing to bet that enough people like you will refuse to believe that it happened. If the standard of evidence for responding is so high that any far-fetched false-flag theory will be given enough weight to scuttle a retaliatory response, and if in a situation like this there will always be such theories, then there will always be those like Assad willing to lay their chips down.

  10. The Tim Channel says:

    @orionATL: That’s the problem I have as well. If we look at Iraq, we know that there were no WMD’s there (Scott Ritter and UN TOLD US AS MUCH). We had total air superiority over Iraq for months. Those NSA satellites weren’t invented last week either. So back then, I’m guessing that Cheney KNEW what we all knew about the lack of those WMD’s when they ginned up the lies. We spend billions of dollars watching these places with the most sophisticated equipment one could possibly imagine.

    Seen That Movie Too (The WMD Bugaloo)

    The biggest lies being told are about these chemical weapons and their location. We paid for people to KNOW that information. We handed over all OUR rights of privacy in return for the privilege of our spy agencies to track EVERYONE on the planet. We have facial recognition software and cheap, easily hidden cameras (they track your tag all over the US). How hard would it be to conceal camera tech for watching major hotspots? And that’s assuming the ground level tech is even necessary, given the ability of plane, drone and satellite sensors. Corner cams would probably be superfluous. I expect one of the high level military industrial politicians appointed by a bankster friend of Obama will get on TV and tell us the exact location of those CW’s soon. They’ll be just north, east, south and west of Bagdad. Enjoy.

  11. Adam Colligan says:

    @oompa loompa: It’s far more likely that Assad regime forces conducted this attack than that anyone else did it and has managed to keep its dog-wagging conspiracy a secret.

  12. oompa loompa says:

    @Adam Colligan: History is not on your side. We do this all the time. Our history is littered with examples of us screwing with some country and then using that as an excuse to screw with them some more. Claiming that a false flag or other covert operation is impossible is ridiculous. If it is impossible to keep people quiet, then let’s defund the CIA right now. What’s the point of having covert operatives if covert operations are impossible?

    For the record, I’m not claiming that Assad isn’t capable of doing this or that the CIA is behind this. I have no idea. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t believe what the US government has to say about it.

  13. Adam Colligan says:

    @oompa loompa: I don’t think that is a moral approach to this issue. Before you were talking about Occam’s Razor, but now apparently you don’t have a responsibility to consider force as long as a conspiracy scenario is “not impossible”? We don’t even use that standard in capital murder trials. The fact that the US government lacks credibility in many ways cannot be used as an excuse to turn away from such strong evidence of an outrageous crime. Distrusting the US government certainly entitles you to appoint yourself to consider such evidence directly rather than taking anyone’s word for it. But it does not entitle you to turn a blind eye to reality as if sticking it to the serial liars in the intelligence community is a moral substitute for doing right by people who are being gassed to death. And by “doing right” in that sentence, I don’t even mean necessarily concluding that a strike is a good idea. But you should be expected to at least acknowledge the reality of their suffering and its highly probable source (Assad forces) and to properly weigh it in your decision about what course of action to support.

  14. Colinjames says:

    Knuckleball? sssteeeeeeeeeeRIKE!

    No, Assad did not use CWs- almost certainly. The “rebels” almost certainly did. And by “rebels”, I mean US/Saudi/Israeli/Qatar armed, trained, and funded foreign terrorists funneled in via Turkey and Libya who are getting their assess kicked, hence the increased push for US intervention, which would be illegal under intl law, completely f*cking reckless, and so, consistent with our foreign policy in the middle east. Terrorize, destabilize, send in the wealth extractors, further isolate and encircle Russia and China with bases and client puppet-regimes, stamp it with the labels freedom and democracy, call it a day. Only, this time, Russia considers an attack on Syria a direct attack on Russia, and they gotta be thinking, where is OUR red line? Where does this US aggression stop?

    The markets are already spooked, oil prices are shooting upwards, so a direct assault on Syria = a direct blow to our economy, as well as further eroding our international credibility and the justification for any and everything we do- the ever convenient, sacrosanct “National Security”… but but but the horror of chemical weapons! The moral outrage! Except when we hello Saddam use em. Or we use em. Like white phosphorous. And depleted uranium. And banned everywhere-but-here weapons like cluster bombs. Not the least bit hypocritical. Not. At. All.

    Also, this is the same Assad who has shown absolute restraint in NOT responding to Israeli airstrikes. To believe he would gas his own people, civilians no less, 15 minutes from where the UN inspection team is staying, within hours upon their arrival, knowing full-well that’s Obama’s “red line” for direct intervention, you would have to be about the stupidest mofo on the planet. We know Turkish police caught the rebels with CWs. We know they were trained in CW handling by US contractors. We know they’ve used CWs already against the Syrian military. They’ve committed massacres of civilians, imposed the harshest of Islamic laws in rebel-controlled areas, post videos of themselves gassing rabbits and eating livers, because, well, they’re terrorists. That’s what they do.

    All reports of CW use by Assad come from wholly compromised sources, including Doctors without Borders, who, um, don’t actually have any of their own people inside Syria’s borders. Analysts who actually put their names attached to their analyses have pointed to numerous problems with the made-for-tv scenes of dead children played on MSM propaganda outlets. Syria did NOT delay the inspectors, either -the formal request was made Saturday, access was granted Sunday. Now it’s Kerry who is trying to kill the investigation, falsely claiming the evidence has been destroyed, when in fact analysts say there’s plenty of time and ways to detect sarin and other nerve agents after the fact.

    And let’s remember our old friends at Brookings and their tank thunk report- Which Path to Persia?

    “The road to Tehran lies thru Damascus”.

    Oh, and I’m sure this has nothing to do with the pipeline that was planned for Iran-Syria-Iraq, effectively f*cking Qatar vis-a-vis natural gas exports. I believe the “civil war” broke out within days of the announcement… quelle surprise! as Yves at NC is find of saying. Que suerte! I say, since i only speak a little Spanish. Coincidence? I’m sure. As in, shhhuuurrrre it is. Let’s hope this doesn’t break out into WWIII, cuz that’s the worst case scenario. Any attack, even “limited, surgical strikes” is gambling with igniting this thing into a full-blown fiasco. God help us if we do.

  15. rugger9 says:

    All the more reason to step back.

    By the way, the Tarsus base is in operation again for the Russians with their carrier in residence. I’m not convinced that the Russians under Putin (he of the current manly-man kick) would look kindly on an attack upon their ally. I think the Russians are there to resist, and no “narrow” limited objectives sort of military exhibition will impress Putin or prevent the retaliation that someone with Putin’s attitude will launch.

    All this so we can blast Assad without any idea that who replaces Assad is any better. We don’t have any reliable friends in Syria now.

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