US assessment of chemical weapons attack near Damascus

The US State Department has just published the Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013 and a map of the suburbs affected.

This is the first credible account of events released by any government. Credible, because it contains assertions and caveats, but most importantly, because its details are falsifiable. The elements can be verified against other sources, most notably the preliminary report of the UN investigative team, which should be with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon within the next 72 hours or so (Sunday or Monday).

The different sources will need parsing. The report acknowledges reliance on public sources, including the many reports that appeared via social media as the attacks of 21 August were underway. However, it would appear that significant portions of the US document were informed by such sources. The very precise death toll (1,429, including at least 426 children) corresponds with the upper range claimed by Syrian insurgents over the past week. Admittedly, the US report qualifies the numbers as preliminary assessments. Certain paragraphs rely almost entirely on the statement by Médecins Sans Frontières.

The US report is also the first government document that offers a timeline of events and pinpoints the various locations where the attacks took place. Certain aspects are quite detailed. Some of the named areas suffered heavy fighting over many days, which might make it a bit surprising that so many civilians were still living in the affected suburbs. Particularly women and children figure high among the casualties. However, I must admit that I do not know how local residents survive the shelling and bombing, or whether any escape route is open to them.

The intelligence available to the United States during the three days prior to the attack really surprises me:

we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.

Did the US get this intelligence in real time? Or did it receive it or appreciate its significance only after the attacks? If not the latter, then I wonder why the Obama Administration did not issue a public warning to deter the attack, given the apparent magnitude of the preparations?

I am sure that this document will be dissected over the next days. The imminent UN investigative team’s report may add new elements, fresh texture or contradict some of the US assertions. In any case, this is the first time the public has the opportunity to assess independently what senior politicians and government officials claim (but, alas, not with respect to the earlier allegations).

 

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.

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