The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Exclusive: Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Used Nerve Gas, U.S. Spies Say

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The ...

Reuters
Reuters

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military’s rationale for launching the strike — if it had a rationale at all. Perhaps it was a lone general putting a long-standing battle plan in motion; perhaps it was a miscalculation by the Assad government. Whatever the reason, the attack has triggered worldwide outrage, and put the Obama administration on the brink of launching a strike of its own in Syria. “We don’t know exactly why it happened,” the intelligence official added. “We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”

American intelligence analysts are certain that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 — the captured phone calls, combined with local doctors’ accounts and video documentation of the tragedy — are considered proof positive. That is why the U.S. government, from the president on down, has been unequivocal in its declarations that the Syrian military gassed thousands of civilians in the East Ghouta region.

However, U.S. spy services still have not acquired the evidence traditionally considered to be the gold standard in chemical weapons cases: soil, blood, and other environmental samples that test positive for reactions with nerve agent. That’s the kind of proof that America and its allies processed from earlier, small-scale attacks that the White House described in equivocal tones, and declined to muster a military response to in retaliation.

There is an ongoing debate within the Obama administration about whether to strike Assad immediately — or whether to allow United Nations inspectors to try and collect that proof before the bombing begins. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the work of that team “redundant … because it is clearly established already that chemical weapons have been used on a significant scale.”

But within the intelligence community, at least, “there’s an interest in letting the U.N. piece run its course,” the official said. “It puts the period on the end of the sentence.”

When news about the Ghouta incident first trickled out, there were questions about whether or not a chemical agent was to blame for the massacre. But when weapons experts and U.S. intelligence analysts began reviewing the dozens of videos and pictures allegedly taken from the scene of the attacks, they quickly concluded that a nerve gas, such as sarin, had been used there. The videos showed young victims who were barely able to breathe and, in some cases, twitching. Close-up photos revealed that their pupils were severely constricted. Doctors and nurses who say they treated the victims reported that they later became short of breath as well. Eyewitnesses talk of young children so confused, they couldn’t even indentify their own parents. All of these are classic signs of exposure to a nerve agent like sarin, the Assad regime’s chemical weapon of choice.

Making the case even more conclusive were the images of the missiles that supposedly delivered the deadly attacks. If they were carrying conventional warheads, they would have likely been all but destroyed as they detonated. But several missiles in East Ghouta were found largely intact. “Why is there so much rocket left? There shouldn’t be so much rocket left,” the intelligence official told The Cable. The answer, the official and his colleagues concluded, was that the weapon was filled with nerve agent, not a conventional explosive.

In the days after the attacks, there was a great deal of public discussion about which side in Syria’s horrific civil war actually launched the strike. Allies of the Assad regime, like Iran and Russia, pointed the finger at the opposition. The intercepted communications told a different story — one in which the Syrian government was clearly to blame.

The official White House line is that the president is still considering his options for Syria. But all of Washington is talking about a punitive strike on the Assad government in terms of when, not if. Even some congressional doves have said they’re now at least open to the possibility of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. Images of dead children, neatly stacked in rows, have a way of changing minds.

“It’s horrible, it’s stupid,” the intelligence official said about the East Ghouta attack by the Syrian military. “Whatever happens in the next few days — they get what they deserve.”

Noah Shachtman is Foreign Policy's executive editor of news, directing the magazine's coverage of breaking events in international security, intelligence, and global affairs. A Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, he's reported from Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Russia. He's written about technology and defense for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others.

Previously, Shachtman was a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he co-founded and edited its national security blog, Danger Room. The site took home the Online Journalism Award for best beat reporting in 2007, and a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting in digital media.

Shachtman has spoken before audiences at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Aspen Security Forum, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Harvard Law School, and National Defense University. The offices of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the Director of National Intelligence have all asked him to contribute to discussions on cyber security and emerging threats. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, ABC News, and NPR have looked to him to provide insight on military developments.

In 2003, Shachtman founded DefenseTech.org, which quickly emerged as one of the web's leading resources on military hardware. The site was later sold to Military.com. During his tenure at Wired, he patrolled with Marines in the heart of Afghanistan's opium country, embedded with a Baghdad bomb squad, pored over the biggest investigation in FBI history, exposed technical glitches in the U.S. drone program, snuck into the Los Alamos nuclear lab, profiled Silicon Valley gurus and Russian cybersecurity savants, and underwent experiments by Pentagon-funded scientists at Stanford.

Before turning to journalism, Shachtman worked as a professional bass player, book editor, and campaign staffer on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shachtman lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Leo and Giovanni. Twitter: @NoahShachtman

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.