We All Fall Down Part 1: The national intelligence assessments

This is the first of a four-part series analysing the international reactions to the chemical attacks in Damascus on 21 August. Part 2 addresses how the public intelligence assessments have been used to try and justify military interventions against Syrian forces and military installations. Part 3 attempts to construct a counter-factual argument in order to determine whether insurgent forces can be held responsible for the chemical attacks. Part 4 investigates the consequences of international reactions for the future of the norm against chemical weapons (CW).


Over the past 10 days the French, UK and US governments published intelligence summaries on the chemical attacks against several suburbs of Damascus last month. Their aim is to demonstrate the Syrian government’s culpability and convince both domestic audiences and the international community of the need for punitive military strikes. The three assessments essentially comprise a descriptive narrative of the events during the early hours of 21 August and the construction of an argument accusing Syria of grossly violating international treaty and customary law. The French document also contains sections on earlier allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use and Syrian CW capacities.

This first contribution in a 4-part blog series analyses the facts behind the accusations and the ways in which the three countries build their case against the Syrian government.

On the origin of evidence
Each intelligence report relies on three types of sources: propriety intelligence information, diplomatic communications, and public reports in the press, on the internet, or from non-governmental organisations monitoring the Syrian civil war or working inside the country. It is impossible to weigh the relative importance of each information class in the respective assessments. Few specific points link directly to a particular information source. However, public sources seem to dominate the narrative. Diplomatic exchanges most likely refer communications between France, the UK and the USA, as well as other allies. However, it is worth bearing in mind that reports submitted by military attachés often include local and regional press summaries or clippings. Except for an occasional general remark, intelligence assets on the ground remain unmentioned.

The note prepared by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for UK Prime Minister David Cameron does not indicate whether physiological evidence or analyses of samples contributed to the assessment. British officials had claimed such evidence for earlier CW allegations, and upon his arrival in St Petersburg for the G20 summit, Cameron revealed that scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Porton Down, had found sarin traces on cloth and soil samples from the Ghouta area. However, the DSTL had not been able to complete the tests in time for the JIC report or the debate in the House of Commons on 29 August.

The USA assesses that Syria used an unspecified nerve agent based on ‘multiple streams of information’, which include human, signals and geospatial intelligence. Besides video evidence, its determination of the cause of injuries and death relies on reports from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (see below). The document, however, does not refer to physical or physiological samples retrieved from the affected areas. However, in subsequent statements Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned physiological samples that tested positive for ‘signatures of sarin’.

France simulated the attacks in the Damascus suburbs to establish the credibility of the various casualty reports. It may have run various theoretical scenarios, or it has obtained relevant (but unspecified) data from the affected districts to set up the simulation. The French report refers in passing to its own intelligence gathering (pp. 1 and 7, French original), but otherwise offers no indication on how it constructed or conducted the simulation(s). Video footage and local NGO reports, as well as analyses of the parallel military operations in the different districts, appear to have been primary sources for the intelligence assessment. No mention is made of sample analysis. The report further supports its conclusions by drawing parallels with physical and other evidence from earlier chemical warfare allegations. With regard to the Damascus strikes, it remains vague as to the precise nature of the agent(s) involved, limiting itself to the characterisation ‘highly lethal chemical agents’. French ministers have referred to sarin since the document’s release.

On the preparation and execution the chemical attacks in the Damascus suburbs
The three intelligence assessments take different routes in trying to establish Syria’s culpability. The UK document focusses entirely on the attack and its aftermath. The US summary, as I have already discussed in an earlier blog posting, establishes not only a broad time line for the events on 21 August, but also describes the preparations for the attack between 18 and 21 August based on different types of intelligence (which made me wonder why the US government did not issue a public warning to the Assad regime).

France offers a lengthy description of Syria’s CW programme, indicating that the country imported its chemical munitions in the 1970s, but then developed an autonomous production capacity during the 1980s. It next describes the composition of the CW arsenal, estimating a total agent volume of over 1,000 metric tonnes. It list three types: mustard (several hundreds of metric tonnes), sarin (also several hundreds of tonnes), and VX (several tens of tonnes). Furthermore, according to the document, Syrian scientists have also worked on nitrogen mustard and an unspecified neurotoxicant with a toxicity higher than that of sarin. (It is worth pointing out that the toxicity of VX exceeds that of sarin.) The report goes on to list the various delivery systems without providing numbers. For some years French intelligence has observed the development and deployment of tactical munitions with lower agent payloads. The section concludes with a summary of the highly centralised chain of command. Anybody in that chain of command and the specialised chemical warfare unit is Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam to which the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad adheres.

Amid the descriptions is an intriguing 5-line paragraph at the bottom of page 3 (French original): the Syrians keep part of their sarin and VX in binary form, meaning that the final two precursors are stored separately and mixed only before use. It considers the technique and associated procedures as evidence of Syria’s advanced mastery of CW technologies.

The assertion recalls an episode before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait when Saddam Hussein in his infamous speech of 1 April 1990 (in which he also threatened to burn half of Israel) mentioned a CW technology that was widely interpreted in the West as ‘binary’. During the preceding decade and a half political debates had been raging in the USA over whether the country should replace its aging CW stockpile with new munitions. The proposed concepts comprised a bomb and artillery shell in which the two precursor chemicals would mix during the trajectory towards the target. Persistent design problems, fierce political opposition and the thaw at the end of the Cold War eventually killed the programme. In my PhD dissertation (1996) I called the binary munitions the most democratic weapon ever designed: it addressed a large variety of military, political and societal objections (I listed 12 different issue areas) for which proponents of the programme were willing to sacrifice military effectiveness, i.e., agent concentration was lower because of the inability to remove impurities resulting from the chemical reaction inside the munition. This rationale of democratic decision-making underlying the binary concept made no sense in the Iraqi context, but it created an aura of highly advanced technological prowess. Arabic, however, has no equivalent term for ‘binary’, and the term used by Hussein—al-kimawi al-muzdawij—means something akin to ‘dual chemical’. In my presentation to the Third Annual Conference on Chemical and Biological Warfare held at the Free University of Brussels (1991) I listed several possible interpretations, but it was not until about a decade later that a former UNSCOM inspector informed me that Iraq had not mastered the technology to stabilise sarin for longer-term storage. It therefore kept the two key precursors separate until the bombs were about to be loaded onto the planes. Driving the bombs around the tarmac on trailers accelerated the chemical reaction. In other words, Iraq’s so-called binary concept was a practical solution to an important technological deficiency.

Lesser quality of the chemical warfare agents would not have made them less injurious to the victims in Ghouta. However, it may account for a number of initial observations by CW experts (including myself) that convulsions seen in many video clips appear not as severe as one might expect from a high-quality nerve agent, that many casualties show clear signs of asphyxia without convulsions or other typical symptoms of neurotoxic poisoning (e.g., myosis), or that unprotected medical staff and other aid workers could function without suffering effects from secondary contamination.

Lower grade nerve agent might also eliminate the need to speculate as to whether the toxicant had been diluted or mixed with other chemicals for masking purposes. Similarly, it might also resolve some of the discrepancies between the images and the narrative of events of earlier claims of CW use, although this would have to be carefully verified (see the section on ‘A pattern of chemical warfare’ below) as industrial or other toxicants might have polluted the air as a consequence of normal combat activity. However, at the same time it would also eliminate various allegations of chemical attacks in which casualties or witnesses claimed not to have seen or smelled anything (impure sarin, for instance, is neither colourless nor odourless). Some of the reported symptoms might thus have had other causes, including psychosomatic stress factors (similar to those observed after the sarin release in the Tokyo underground system).

In sum, absent independent determination of the characteristics of the chemical agent used in the Ghouta district, several possible hypotheses for the observed phenomena remain to be eliminated.

On the casualties
President of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, estimated that the chemical attacks killed at least 1,300 in the Ghouta region. Fahad Almasri, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Paris, claimed that the organisation’s branch in Damascus had documented 1,729 deaths and that some 6,000 people were also suffering from breathing problems. Médecins sans frontières (MSF) reported on 24 August that three hospitals it supports in Syria’s Damascus governorate had received ‘approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.’ By the end of August, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had confirmed 502 fatalities, a figure that had steadily risen from the initial tally of 136 and later estimate of 322, which included 54 children, 82 women and dozens of fighters.

The MSF figure features as the referent death toll in all three intelligence reports. The UK ‘judges’ the number of fatalities to be ‘at least’ 350 without quoting any source. France refers explicitly to the independent assessment by MSF. It also conducted its own detailed analysis of a sample of ‘47 original videos’ and counted at least 281 deceased individuals located in East Ghouta, which, according to the French analysis, comprises the districts of Ain Tarma, Duma, Irbin, Jobar, Kafr Batna, Qas Alaa, and Zamalka. It adds that half of the casualties in the hospital at Duma were women and children and that in 50% of the cases death was instantaneous. The document does give an absolute number for the deceased in Duma, and it is therefore not possible to assess their share in the 281 counted deceased individuals. It is also not possible to determine whether those 281 fatalities should be added to the MSF figure or whether they belong to the same cohort. (The MSF statement does not list the districts in which the hospitals the NGO supports are located.) The French intelligence report allows for an upper limit of around 1500 deaths, reflecting some of the early assessments by opposition sources.

The US government, in contrast, made a preliminary determination that 1,429 were killed in the Damascus chemical attacks, of whom at least 426 were children (29.8%). It offers no clue as to how it obtained those exact numbers, but it falls somewhere in between the upper ranges offered by insurgent sources in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The uncanny precision of units and tens resembles that in the Free Syria Army’s statement. The US document added that ‘this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information’. Despite the phrasing’s allowance for both a higher or a lower statistic, President Barack Obama and high-ranking members of his administration have kept on referring to a 1,400 plus toll since the assessment’s release.

Two pages later, the US document cites the number of 3,600 patients with symptoms of nerve agent exposure in three hospitals in the Damascus area and describes the secondary contamination (i.e., exposure to nerve agent residues remaining on primary victims) of medical staff and helpers. It refers to ‘a highly credible international humanitarian organization’, but does not name MSF. The paragraph ends with the claim that the USA also received reports from international and Syrian medical personnel on the ground, but offers no indication in which way these modify the bottom line numbers presented by MSF.

Finally, the report states that USA identified (not examined) ‘one hundred videos attributed to the attack’ and enumerates some qualitative characteristics seen on the images. Interestingly, the list includes ‘rapid heartbeat’—Was Bill Frist, heart surgeon and former Republican Senate Majority leader, part of the team that assessed the videos? The French do not list that particular symptom. (On a more serious note, an attending doctor may have testified to the symptom.) It identified twelve (unspecified) locations in the publicly available videos, adding that ‘some were shot at the general times and locations described in the footage’. It is not possible to determine which geographic overlap exists with the French analysis of video footage. The JIC assessment merely notes that ‘extensive video footage attributed to the attack in eastern Damascus […] is consistent with the use of a nerve agent […]’. All three countries deem it highly unlikely that the insurgents could have stage managed the attacks in view of the density of witness accounts and film footage.

In summary, the three governmental reports rely in essence, if not exclusively on publicly available casualty assessments by opposition forces or independent NGOs. They all rely heavily on the MSF press statement of 24 August, a fact that prompted the organisation to release a sharp-worded reaction that its statements should not be used as a substitute for the UN investigation then underway or as a justification for military action. Both France and the USA mention the upper range of potential fatalities, but the USA is unique in claiming that its inordinately precise number is a government assessment. As noted earlier, US government officials now tend to use the 1,400 range as a fact, rather than as a preliminary finding as stated in the report. Both countries accept that the analysed videos appear to have been recorded in the locations where the chemical attacks took place; the USA also asserts that they were taken within a plausible time frame.

A pattern of chemical warfare
An interesting aspect of the three intelligence reports is the way each document refers back to assessments of earlier allegations to establish a pattern of behaviour by the Syrian government. The UK’s JIC notes that ‘the regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past’. In the letter accompanying the British report, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Jon Day expands:

It is important to put these JIC judgements in context. We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012. This judgement was made with the highest possible level of certainty following an exhaustive review by the Joint Intelligence Organisation of intelligence reports plus diplomatic and open sources. We think that there have been other attacks although we do not have the same degree of confidence in the evidence. A clear pattern of regime use has therefore been established.

The US assessment similarly uses backward references to exclude insurgents from culpability in the attacks:

We assess with high confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year, including in the Damascus suburbs. This assessment is based on multiple streams of information including reporting of Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks and laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin. We assess that the opposition has not used chemical weapons.

It then offers a military rationale for resorting to CW in earlier attacks:

We assess that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons over the last year primarily to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate in areas where it has struggled to seize and hold strategically valuable territory. In this regard, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal, including air power and ballistic missiles, which they indiscriminately use against the opposition.

This rationale ultimately lays the foundation for the establishment of probable cause in the Damascus attacks:

The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighborhoods of opposition elements, including neighborhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21.

The French intelligence summary employs a similar methodology, even though it points to two specific incidents—Jobar in mid-April and Saraqeb on 29 April—from which France obtained biomedical and soil samples and was able to determine the use of sarin.

Under most circumstances, establishing a pattern of behaviour is a standard procedure in determining probable cause. However, this pattern of behaviour needs to be based on facts. No government has issued public reports to document previous allegations similar to the ones now available for the chemical attacks against the Damascus suburbs. Instead, all assertions came from government officials and they claimed a higher evidentiary value for the more factual elements in their statements than was reasonably plausible. However, referral to those anterior allegations bestows backward legitimacy on them, which in turn supports the present claim of a pattern of behaviour on behalf of the Syrian government, while exculpating the insurgents (because past political statements blamed government forces too). As Jon Day writes in the letter accompanying the British report: ‘We think that there have been other attacks although we do not have the same level of confidence in the evidence.’ This candour is unfortunately lost in the political discourse.

On the confidence in the findings
Contrary to the UK and US assessments, the French report does not state the degree of certitude with which the French intelligence community presents individual assertions. All the same, neither the British nor the American document raises the national findings to the level of ‘fact’, i.e., incontrovertible evidence that leaves no room for doubt. Even in the several sub-areas, no individual claim rises to that level.

Gaps in the knowledge of what has happened and still happens inside Syria is not unusual at the present stage. After all, the UN investigative team still needs to submit its report, which in all likelihood will fill in many gaps and elevate current indicators to fact. Presently, however, politicians compensate the sparsity of proof with recitals of judgement. Instead, they could have opted for candour and instructed the intelligence services to lay out not only what evidence they have accumulated, but also the foundations for judgements where incontrovertible facts are lacking. What types of samples were tested? How many? Where did they come from? How did they get them? Which aspects of the chain of custody were respected and at what stages did uncertainty enter the process? What steps were undertaken to ascertain the provenance of the samples? What did the laboratory analyses reveal and in which areas were they inconclusive?

Public answers to these and many other questions need not compromise intelligence gathering methods or sources, but would make for a much more convincing statement. Right now we do not know whether Kerry’s ‘signatures of sarin’ equal sarin or something else. Given Saudi Arabia’s strong interests in regime change and obtaining outside military intervention in the Syrian civil war, how confident can one be of the evidence underlying the US and UK assertions, if one reads (Wall Street Journal, 25 August 2013):

That winter [2012], the Saudis also started trying to convince Western governments that Mr. Assad had crossed what President Barack Obama a year ago called a “red line”: the use of chemical weapons. Arab diplomats say Saudi agents flew an injured Syrian to Britain, where tests showed sarin gas exposure. Prince Bandar’s spy service, which concluded in February [2013] that Mr Assad was using chemical weapons, relayed evidence to the US, which reached a similar conclusion four months later. The Assad regime denies using such weapons.

If any refutation of this claim was issued, I missed it. However, as it stands, the quote suggests that the evidence supplied in support of the UK’s request last March to expand the UN investigation to the alleged CW attack in Homs on 23 December is based on this single person exfiltrated by Saudi operatives.

With the present state of affairs, it is all to easy for the accused and their supporters to claim that no firm evidence has been presented to support the various allegations.

By way of conclusion
The intelligence assessments by France, the United Kingdom and the United States are not scientific reports of the events, although they do claim that solid analyses buttress their respective conclusions. They are also not the definitive statements by the respective governments, as political leaders release further information piecemeal.

If a case is to be made against the Syrian government, the three intelligence assessments only hint at the availability of, but do not offer incontrovertible proof. Too many questions are not addressed; too little factual information is provided in support of the allegations. As the political debates in the UK and France have shown, they fall far short of convincing domestic audiences. At the time of writing, the US Congress and public opinion are also sceptical. The bar to win over the international community and have it undertake decisive action in support of international law is even far higher. It requires tangible and verifiable facts rather than lofty rhetoric on upholding universal norms under selective circumstances.

The second part of this series will look into how the CW allegations have been instrumentalised in the calls for military intervention.

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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.

2 thoughts on “We All Fall Down Part 1: The national intelligence assessments

  1. JP Zanders Post author

    In a comment sent to me, UK CBW expert Julian Perry Robinson noted that in a New York Times article of 3 September, Unit 450 is described as ‘the secretive Syrian Air Force organization that controls the country’s chemical weapon stockpiles, [and which] is a highly vetted outfit that is deemed one of the most loyal to the Assad government, given the importance of the weapons in its custody, according to American intelligence officials.’

    The French intelligence summary, cited in my blog posting, considers Unit 450 to be part of the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques, which is responsible for chemical weapons preparations for use and security.

  2. Pingback: We All Fall Down Part 1: The national intelligence assessments | Syria… Seriously? | No war in Syria!

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