As Congress debates whether to authorize a military strike on Syria, the French government has released its declassified intelligence report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs.
France, the United States’ only remaining potential partner for military intervention in Syria, agrees in broad strokes with the White House’s view of the attack. Both governments present evidence that the Syrian regime launched chemical weapons on rebel-held neighborhoods, likely killing over 1,000 people. But in terms of its level of detail, the French report puts the U.S. intelligence assessment to shame.
While the American report focuses solely on the most recent attack, the French provide a comprehensive look at the nature of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report includes a breakdown of the toxic agents that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is believed to have obtained: hundreds of tons of mustard gas, tens of tons of VX gas, and several hundred tons of sarin gas.
Assad’s sarin stockpiles, which the United States says were used in the Aug. 21 attack, reveal a "technological mastery" of chemical weapons, according to the French. The sarin is stored in binary form — the two chemical precursors necessary to make the gas are kept separate and are only mixed immediately before use. This technological sophistication may be a key point when U.N. investigators release their report on the Damascus attack: If they find that the toxic agent used in the attack was an advanced form of sarin — containing chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents — the weapon will most likely have come from Syrian regime stockpiles.
While U.S. officials have conceded that they don’t know if Assad himself ordered the use of chemical weapons, the French assessment rebuts claims that the Aug. 21 attack could have been the work of a rogue officer. France traces Syria’s chemical weapons program to "Branch 450" of the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research, which Israel bombed in May. Only Assad and top members of his regime, the report says, have authority to order the branch to employ its deadly weapons. Nor does the report give credence to the idea of a rogue element within Branch 450 itself: The unit, it says, is "composed solely of Alawite military personnel … [and] distinguished by a high level of loyalty to the regime."
Like the United States, the French relied on YouTube videos of the Aug. 21 attack for clues as to what occurred — and even published six of the videos used in its analysis. The French were only able to confirm 281 casualties from the attack using open-source videos, far less than the 1,429 deaths that the U.S. assessment claims. However, the French report says that its modeling efforts, which attempt to project the full impact of the strike, are consistent with the higher death toll.
One of the biggest mysteries of this episode is why Assad would risk the ire of the United States by using chemical weapons. While some analyses suggested the rebels were making gains in Damascus, the conventional wisdom was that Assad was making military progress without the use of chemical weapons. The French report, however, suggests that Assad’s position in the capital was weaker than had been supposed: "Our information confirms that the regime feared a large-scale opposition attack in Damascus," the assessment reads. The attack, it says, was intended to "secure strategic sites" that would allow Assad to control the capital, such as the Mezze military airport.
The French claim that Assad embarked on a massive coverup to conceal the use of chemical weapons after the Aug. 21 attack. The Syrian military launched ground and air strikes on the eastern Damascus suburbs and denied investigators access to the area in the days following the assault, the report says. It also accuses Syrian soldiers of starting fires to "purify the atmosphere" of toxic agents. Such actions, the French assessment states, "confirm a clear intention of destroying evidence."
The French report may not change anyone’s basic understanding of the Aug. 21 attack. But for those of us who try to understand the scope of the Syrian chemical weapons program, how it is operated, and the regime’s assessment of its own strength, it contains clues that will be useful long after the current debate ends.
The French say the Syrians have tons of chemical weapons; Hagel, Kerry, Dempsey pitch limited strikes today; Why haven’t arms reached Syrian rebels?; Why conventional prompt global strike weapons matter; Military suicides are up; and a bit more.Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| The Cable |