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French Spies Provide New Details on Assad’s Chemical Weapons Program

French Spies Provide New Details on Assad’s Chemical Weapons Program

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.