With All These Defections, How Can Intelligence Agencies Make Claims about Chain of Command?

The French, who have a long history with Syria, offered a somewhat more developed explanation for why they’re so sure that Bashar al-Assad should be held responsible for the August 21 attack even while someone in his Ministry of Defense appears to have been panicked and confused about the attack. (Note: Alan Grayson asked for this intercept to be declassified in today’s hearing, but Chuck Hagel seemed unenthused about that idea.)

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.

In their case for war they talked about how tightly controlled Assad’s Chemical Weapons are.

The Syrian chemical programme is centred around the Center of Scientific Studies and Research (CSSR), in charge among others of producing chemical warfare agents. Its Branch 450 is in charge of the filling of chemical ammunitions, as well as the security of chemical sites and stockpiles. Formed exclusively with Alawi officers, this unit is known for its high loyalty to the regime.

Bachar al Assad and some of the most influential members of his clan are the only ones empowered to order the use of chemical weapons. The order is then forwarded to the commanding officers within the competent branches of the CSSR. In parallel, the armed forces HQs receive the order, decide of targeting and of the choice of weapons and toxic agents to use.

While not definitive, it is a slightly more developed version of the argument that the US made.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) – which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense – manages Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Nevertheless, in the face of some questions about what the men in the CW unit were doing, both governments have offered simply an argument about how reliable the CW staffers are in this unit.

But that comes amidst what John Kerry claims is a big wave of defections. The most notable is that of General Habib Ali, Assad’s former Minister of Defense and like him an Alawite.

“Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official,” Kamal al-Labwani said from Paris.

Syrian state television denied Habib had left Syria and said he was still at his home. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said he could not at the moment confirm Habib had defected.

A Gulf source told Reuters that Habib had defected on Tuesday evening, arriving at the Turkish frontier before midnight with two or three other people. He was then taken across the border in a convoy of vehicles.

His companions were fellow military officers who supported his defection, the source said. They were believed to have also left Syria but there was no immediate confirmation of that.

Labwani said Habib was smuggled out of Syria with the help of a Western country.

“He will be a top source of information. Habib has had a long military career. He has been effectively under house arrest since he defied Assad and opposed killing protesters,” Labwani said.

An officer in the opposition Free Syrian Army, who did not want to be identified, said the Habib appeared to have coordinated his defection with the United States.

There are, admittedly, some questions about this defection.

But Kerry referenced this during today’s hearing (though admitted that the Syrians claim the defection didn’t happen) and also said there were 60 to 100 other defections going on right now.

That would match another large group of defections from Assad’s side.

I’ve been saying this for a while: the rebels and Americans aren’t hiding that they’ve got assets loyal to the rebel side throughout Assad’s regime, with significant numbers at least purportedly defecting with US help.

They may be boasting falsely. But both things are unlikely to be true at once. Either the US and rebels have chipped away at the loyalty of even some of those closest to Assad — including even some Alawites of the type that might have custody of the CW — or these defections are just bluster.

But given the large number of defections (even assuming these claims may not be reliable), it does require more than just a theoretical explanation of how Assad’s CW chain of command is supposed to work.

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. Peterr says:

    They may be boasting falsely. But both things are unlikely to be true at once. Either the US and rebels have chipped away at the loyalty of even some of those closest to Assad — including even some Alawites of the type that might have custody of the CW — or these defections are just bluster.

    Or — a third option — at least part of the exaggeration is aimed feeding Assad’s paranoia. There are enough defections that he knows that some of his trusted minions should not have been trusted, and claims of more in the works will only making him take a harder look at those who are still in place. It will make him wonder at the advice they offer him: “Is this honest advice, or am I being led into a trap?”. It will make him second-guess his military leaders, make him question the reliability of the reports he’s being given by lower-level minions, and in all kinds of other ways, encourage every little doubt he’s ever had about the people around him.

    And if he starts acting on all those doubts, lashing out at those around him, it will only feed the stream of defectors — and possibly encourage a coup.

  2. Snoopdido says:

    There is at least one very significant change to the Attack Syria AUMF as voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/DAV13973.pdf

    Note subsection (a)(4) in Section 2 on the Authorization for use of United States Armed Forces:

    “(4) prevent the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors within Syria of any weapons of mass destruction.”

  3. bell says:

    peterr – all true which makes me think it’s almost all or – all deception to arouse suspicion in assads mind, but not based on reality.

  4. scribe says:

    @newz4all: Heh.

    More to the point, the USG has had a dozen plus years of identifying and nailing successive generations of the latest “Al Qaeda #2”. Do you really think they can’t do the same with an organized, bureaucratic government or, more likely, just make it up as they go along and the bombing continues?

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Perhaps the US should be cautious about claiming that the formal chain of command is sacrosanct. For decades, the Pentagon refused to tell its Commander-in-Chief what Soviet sites were currently on its nuclear strike list. More recently, on 9/11, Mr. Bush was apparently oblivious of the real time decisions made by his erstwhile subordinate, the nearly constitutionally responsibility-free (while there is a sitting, competent president) Vice President Cheney.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @emptywheel: But it’s stuff like that that always makes me wonder whether someone thought of defcting and then stuck around to provide intell for a while.

  7. orionATL says:


    your comment is most likely in my opinion.

    all this syria-guessing is just a version of old-fashioned kremlinology, i.e., cia/journalists’ gossip and second-guessing toward a new, tiny, trivial target. but the scenarios are still james bond scenarios – assad-bad guys, opaque threatening/disliked/feared state behaviors.

    followed by the blossoming of lots of journalistic guessing fertilized by cointell-fed “facts” that may or may not … indicate anything.

  8. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: The importance of this addition to the Attack Syria AUMF may be related to reported news that some of Assad’s chemical weapons sites are being guarded by Hezbollah and/or Iranian Revolutionary Guards thus making them targetable by the AUMF.

  9. orionATL says:

    bibelots and the ghost of michael deaver.

    prez reagan had a media guru named michael deaver.

    michael deaver’s view of presidential communications was :

    “the president must control the headlines.”

    prior to the latest syrian gassing episode and the obama admin’s response to it, the president was on the defensive about the nsa spying and the economy.

    is he on tbe defensive now, about nsa spying or the economy or the affcareact?

    on labor day ew posted and noted in passing that at&t was collaborating for money with the drug enforcement administration.

    the wapo posted several articles involving gellman in one way or another, but involving other sources than snowden.

    the brazilian o globo reported that the mexican president, while a candidate, was spyed on by nsa talking about possible appointments.

    a german newspaper reported on nsa spying.

    the nytimes had a report on spying, maybe the first since agreeing to work with the guardian.

    all of this reportage has been eclipsed by the pseudo-crisis ginnned up by the white house about syria gassing, again, some of its citizens.

    stage two of this media operation is unfolding now with respect to the congress – will she or won’t she?

    it’s all a whitehouse con to seize the headlines – and it’s working very well.

    so why the fascination here with the bibelot that is the syrian morass – other than it could mean the end of the world?

  10. Rayne says:

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper instead of a military intervention to identify all those Alawites who are soft on their support — especially since we have all that fine NSA-gathered material collected wholesale from all electronic communications — and simply bribe them to defect en masse?

    Assuming, of course, that Congress plays ball and drags out the debates long enough for the buy-out offers to be made, and the funding to be provided by the true overlords demanding what is for all intents and purposes a hostile M&A action.

  11. SpanishInquisition says:

    “While not definitive, it is a slightly more developed version of the argument that the US made”

    By that logic Obama is a criminal who should be serving Manning’s sentence and Obama is really the one who is responsible for any alleged Snowden crimes. This of course if false logic, because with Syria for example Assad wouldn’t be responsible if someone in his change of command sold out for instance to the Saudis and carried out the Saudi’s orders. It’s like saying Nixon leaked about Watergate even though Watergate leaks definitely weren’t to his advantage and were done to harm him, even though Deep Through was under Nixon per the Obama Doctrine of Responsibility.

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