U.S. releases intel assessment of evidence on purported use of chemical weapons by Syria --- So now what?...
By Brad Friedman on 8/30/2013, 1:39pm PT  

Late last night we flagged the New York Times report claiming that "momentum for Western military strikes against Syria appeared to slow," following the UK Parliament's stunning vote to reject military intervention there, after Prime Minister David Cameron's government released a fairly thin intelligence assessment and a less-than-persuasive legal theory for taking such action.

Today, the U.S. released its own unclassified intelligence community assessment of what they describe as "high confidence" that the Syrian regime --- at least someone within it --- launched a large chemical weapons attack on neighborhoods near Damascus on August 21.

The attack, the assessment says, resulted in the death of 1,429 people, "including at least 426 children". According to the document, the "high confidence" assessment is "the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation."

Along with the release of that assessment, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered a very straightforward statement (worth reading in full). Please note, however, that the intel assessment, as well as Kerry's statement, did not include the actual first-hand evidence from which the intelligence community is making their assessment, only their evaluation and summary of that evidence. The Administration says they are sharing more of the actual, still-classified assessment and/or evidence with members of Congress.

Kerry noted during his remarks that the intelligence community has been "more than mindful of the Iraq experience," and promised, "We will not repeat that moment." He also added: "the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility."

For his part, the President, in a statement made just before a White House meeting this afternoon, announced that he has made no final decision on action in Syria, but is currently considering a "limited narrow act" which, he says, "in no way involves boots on the ground" or a "long term campaign."

While both Kerry's remarks and Obama's brief comments referenced "consultation" with Congress, neither noted either the legal or Constitutional requirement to receive authorization from them, as we called for earlier, before launching a military intervention, "limited", "narrow" or otherwise, other than in a case of "national emergency".

Both men did, however, offer the case that we must demonstrate the world means what it says about the use of chemical weapons, as banned by the Geneva Convention after WWI and again in various treaties in the nearly 100 years since then.

With all of that in mind --- and, for now, taking the U.S. intelligence assessment at face value for the purposes of this article --- the central point here seems to be that, while killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people with conventional weapons is, apparently, tolerable, using chemical weapons to kill some of them is a war crime. And war crimes, we are told, are a bridge too far.

Really?...

It should also be noted that Kerry asked rhetorically, while describing the necessity of taking action in order to send a message to "Iran...Hezbollah, and North Korea, and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction":

Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons' current or future use, or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?

Wait. Our "limited narrow act" would be enough to "stop...those weapons' current or future use"? That would be an impressive "limited narrow act."

Moreover, the question remains, even if one takes the evidence at face value --- which, at this point, remains a matter of "do you trust the U.S. government to give you accurate information or not?" --- what should be done about it by our country, and is it the job of the U.S. to do so, particularly on its own?

To that end, here's a quick, sharp point, related to all of this and very much worth noting. It was made by David Atkins at Hullabaloo yesterday morning. (NOTE: It was written prior to today's remarks by Kerry and Obama, and before the U.S. assessment that some 1,400 were killed in a chemical weapons attack, as opposed to the "few hundreds" Atkins references)...

Maybe intervention is the right course in Syria. Maybe it isn't. Maybe we should treat a chemical weapons attack that kills a few hundred as morally different from conventional weapons attacks that have been killing tens of thousands. Maybe we shouldn't. These are judgment calls.
...
None of us mere mortals have access to the intelligence briefings the White House gets. But what has been leaked down from on high suggests that the attack was probably not sanctioned by Assad himself (after all, it would be a woefully ill-considered strategic move on his part) but by rogue elements allied to his regime. Current discussion of a bombing campaign seems to be targeted toward punishing those rogue elements in particular. If, in fact, that is what happened.

Intervention in this situation is somewhat perplexing. After watching tens of thousands of Syrians die in a brutal civil war, the United States seems determined to use bombs on a rogue faction of an oppressive regime based on murky intelligence in order not to alter the course of the civil war, but to defend the narrow principle that it's OK to kill people with bombs but not with poisonous gas. That doesn't sound like a great idea.

Either it's worth taking a side in the Syrian civil war, or it isn't. Either it's worth the blood and treasure to end the conflict and hold the war criminals to account, or it isn't. Bombing a country to prove a point about observing internationally sanctioned methods of killing seems unjustifiable. If the United States is less intent on saving lives in Syria than on proving to the United Nations how much we care about observing international war crimes law, we would do better to begin by delivering Dick Cheney to the Hague, instead.

Good point.

* * *

For more, see our article from last night, calling on Congress to convene, debate and vote up or down --- just as the British Parliament did yesterday, when they flatly rejected the idea, for now --- on whether the President should be given legal and/or Constitutional authorization to intervene militarily in Syria.