Syria CW Use – Why? | Charles Duelfer

Syria CW Use – Why?

The headline news of Syrian use of Sarin last month has faded from memory.   Even the US strike against the Syrian base at Khan Sheikhoun seems to have sunk beneath the daily harangue of Trump news. The military strike seems to have accomplished its various puposes.

However, there have been lingering questions about this event. The US view of the event seems convincing, certainly compared to the Russian hypotheses. But it would be good to hear more and a thorough UN investigation would be helpful.

The White House issued a short paper on 11 April and gave a background briefing to the press (available on their website In addition to the obvious evidence of casualties, open source videos, medical reports, and aircraft tracks, they say they had signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence. They concluded sarin was used and the attack was at the direction of President Bashir al-Assad.

Turkey and France have also stated that sarin had been used.

The OPCW (the implementing organization for the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed up to in 2013) reports that a nerve agent, sarin or something similar to sarin was used. This is based on biological samples examined at four different laboratories in four different countries. They have not attributed responsibility. It is worth remembering that the OPCW verified destruction of a lot of Syrian CW stocks, but they still have open issues to be resolved. They have not completed their investigation and have not yet investigated on the ground in Syria. .

Some experts have challenged the US presentation on various technical grounds. The background paper does not have a lot of detail that underlying intelligence assessments presumably contain. If those data were really weak, I suspect there would be more leaks–from the briefings on the Hill if nowhere else.

The part I find puzzling is why Bashir al-Assad would order such a flagrant attack that does so little militarily. The background briefing by “a senior administration official” addresses this with the following:

“SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I think it’s important to understand the context in which these weapons were employed, what motivated the regime — the fact that they were losing in a particularly important area, and that’s what drove it.  

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so in the middle of March, opposition forces launched an offensive from Southern Idlib province toward the major city of Hama, which is a strategic city in Syria.  It’s Syria’s third city, and it’s also the location of a key Syrian regime airbase that has been crucial for the regime and the forces that support it for projecting power from central Syria, both along the western spine, from Aleppo down to the south, and also further to the east to support operations in Palmyra.  So that is an airbase that the regime had to calculate that it could not lose.

The opposition offensive approach was able to penetrate to within just a couple of miles of that strategic airbase and also threatened the Hama population center within just a few miles.

At that point, the regime we think calculated that with its manpower spread quite thin, trying to support both defensive operations and consolidation operations in Aleppo and along that north-south spine of western Syria, and also trying to support operations which required it to send manpower and resources east toward Palmyra, we believe that the regime probably calculated at that point that chemical weapons were necessary in order to try to make up for the manpower deficiency.  

That’s why we saw, we believe, multiple attacks of this nature against locations that the regime probably determined were support areas for the opposition forces that were near Hama — for example, in the town of Al-Tamanah and then in the town of Khan Sheikhun, both of which are in what would be, in military terms, the rear area for the opposition forces that were on the front line.

So we believe certainly that there was an operational calculus that the regime and perhaps its Russian advisors went through in terms of the decision-making.

This just does not sound terribly compelling. This is a lot of assumptions on top of assumptions about the assessed operational military rationale for dropping a sarin chemical munition from an SU-22 aircraft given the inevitable international outcry. To violate flagrantly the international treaty (again) for rather marginal military advantage against the insurgents formerly known as al Nusra, seems peculiar.

It would have been interesting to hear the discussion between President Assad and his military commanders that led to this action. Too bad they don’t leak as much as Washington does.


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