- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
The Obama administration’s plan to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons depends on President Bashar al-Assad letting international inspectors into his country — and standing by as they destroy the deadly agents in his arsenal.
But former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials — as well as Syria experts — doubt that Assad has any intention of doing this. And in his tacit agreement to the daunting weapons-removal plan, which was brokered by the United States and Russia and will take months if not years to complete, they detect a deliberate strategy.
"I think this is the Syrians playing for time," Michael Morell, the recently-retired deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told Foreign Policy. "I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons."
The weapons that Assad is believed to have used in a devastating August 21 attack in Damascus provide him with an important regional defense, one he is not likely to give up. The regime has "long seen them as a strategic deterrent against Israel," Morell said. "Be a skeptic that [Assad] is at all serious about this."
Morell also advised equal skepticism about Russia’s intentions. The country is one of Syria’s few allies, and has already ruled out any use of military force if Assad fails to comply with the plan to gather up his weapons.
Now, amid a pause in U.S. military action, Assad has the time and a reason to hide his arsenal or spirit pieces of it out of the country. For the past three months, reports from Syria analysts and rebels fighting Assad have suggested that he has shifted his stockpile to new locations. One opposition general even claimed that Assad gave some of his stockpile to Hezbollah in Lebanon and moved portions into Iraq. "A great deal of reporting indicates he is moving his chemical weapons around," said Chris Harmer, a retired Navy officer and an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, which monitors Syrian military movements and reports from citizens and fighters in the country.
"This delay has given the regime plenty of time to come up with quite a comprehensive plan for how to best position themselves to deal with a military strike," said Valerie Szybala, a Syria analyst with the institute. Assad now knows which regime targets the United States would likely strike if the diplomatic route fails, but he also knows that the attack isn’t imminent. Under the U.S.-Russia framework agreement, weapons inspectors are supposed to be in Syria by November.
"I do not think Assad’s intentions are genuine," Szybala said, who, like Morell, doubted that the Syrian dictator would ever comply with the U.S.-Russia plan. "Nothing that has ever come out of this regime has given us an indication they’re trustworthy."
Since the Syrian civil war began, U.S. intelligence agencies have been trying to keep close tabs on the country’s chemical weapons arsenal.
"That’s always been a priority for us, trying to figure out where the stuff is," said Morell, who twice served as acting director of the CIA and retired in August after a 33-year career at the agency. "It was one of our top requirements. It will be even more so now. I think it will just increase in importance."
U.S. intelligence agencies have had more than two years to take satellite photos of Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities, eavesdrop on military and regime officials, and to assess the intentions and capabilities of Syria’s leaders. But that was painstaking work, made all the more difficult by the nature of the weapons the United States is trying to track.
"Chemical weapons are easy to hide and easy to move around," Morell said. It’s difficult to track individual containers of weapons, particularly when they’re transported. According to Harmer, "A truck full of chemical weapons warheads looks like any other truck; there is nothing unique about it, so it is more difficult to assess what [Assad] is doing."
Asked whether Assad now has a greater motivation to move his weapons into new storage facilities or hiding places, Morell replied, "Absolutely."
The United States appears to have some idea of how big Assad’s chemical arsenal is. Reportedly, U.S. and Russian negotiators were able to agree on the size when negotiating the disarmament plan. And Syria watchers said that there are some known production facilities that have been monitored by independent observers and U.S. spies for several years.
But outsiders haven’t had direct access to any locations known to house chemical weapons since the civil war began in 2011, Szybala said. "The world has kind of lost track of where they are."
As yet, no firm evidence has emerged that shows where Assad is hiding the stockpiles or whom he may have given them to. But analysts have had some success tracking the movements of conventional forces, including artillery batteries used to deliver the gas.
"By all accounts, Assad is decentralizing his conventional forces to the [maximum] extent possible, making them less vulnerable to an attack by the U.S.," Harmer said. "We have seen a good deal of Twitter and Facebook chatter from the rebels indicating that Assad is repositioning assets out of Mount Qasioun [overlooking Damascus] and moving those assets closer to civilian populations," where they would be harder to hit without injuring or killing innocent bystanders.
Independent analysts as well as U.S. intelligence agencies have relied heavily on social media reports from people in Syria to keep track of Assad’s conventional forces, and to a lesser extent the movement of his chemical arsenal. Twitter feeds and YouTube videos were a key part of the U.S. intelligence assessment that put the blame for the August 21 attack on Assad’s forces.
"It is obviously more difficult to track chemical weapons movement using open source intelligence than it is to track conventional weapons movements," Harmer said, referring to sources of information, like social media, that are publicly available.
The plan to sequester and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons put on hold U.S. plans to strike at the Assad regime. Some experts doubt that the delay in a military strike will make much difference in the United States’ ability to collect intelligence on the Syrian regime, or that it would at least not degrade those efforts.
"Methods that we employed before should still work in the future, on the one hand," said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense expert at the Brookings Institution. "On the other, information that was largely inaccessible to us before will likely remain hard to obtain even in coming weeks and months."
Like other observers, O’Hanlon agreed that Assad "is playing for time… but he may be able to do that and gradually give up his chemicals. After all, his short-term goal is survival. A slow process that secures and then destroys his chemicals may not preclude that."
Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer now with Brookings, agreed with assessments that U.S. intelligence on Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities is probably as good as it’s going to get. "I think the bigger problem now is security," he said, as weapons inspectors prepare to take stock of the Syrian arsenal.
"The Syrian army has to provide security for visits to installations in the areas it controls. It provided only limited security for the team that investigated the August attacks; it must do much much better," Riedel said.
The delay in a military strike could end up working to the benefit of U.S. intelligence agencies if it helps them develop new sources of information and look more closely at Syrian military movements.
"The upside is, the intel community has more time to reposition assets, get better coverage, tighten their technical understanding of where Assad’s forces are," Harmer said. "However, given that we are about 30 months into a civil war…the IC should have been all over this already. So, we are giving the IC time to complete a task they probably already have completed and updated several times over."