U.S. Releases Detailed Intelligence on Syrian Chemical Attack

PARIS — Seeking to move beyond
Britain’s blindsiding rejection of
military intervention in the Syrian
conflict, the Obama administration
received strong support from France
on Friday and released a detailed
intelligence summary to buttress its
contention that the Syrian government
used chemical munitions in an Aug. 21
attack, asserting for the first time that
it had killed 1,429 people, nearly a
third of them children.
The intelligence summary, cited by
Secretary of State John Kerry in a
televised briefing at the State
Department, contained by far the most
specific contentions the administration
has publicly made in arguing that the
Syrian government had crossed a
threshhold of intolerable behavior in
its effort to defeat insurgents in the
civil war, justifying an international
military response.
The administration had previously not
asserted such a precise death toll in the
Aug. 21 attack, which rights activists
and medical aid workers say left
hundreds asphyxiated in what
appeared to be the most egregious mass
killing in the conflict, now in its third
year.
A summary of the intelligence
assessment said its conclusions were
based on “human, signals and
geospatial intelligence as well as a
significant body of open-source
reporting.”
Among the findings, the summary said,
was intelligence that Syrian chemical
weapons personnel had plotted the
attack for three days in advance, partly
out of frustration that the use of
conventional weapons in Ghouta, one
of the Syrian towns hit last week, had
failed to dislodge insurgents.
The intelligence found “activities that
we assess were associated with
preparations for a chemical weapons
attack” in the three days before the
weapons were unleashed, the summary
said.
The administration has moved missile-
armed warships close to the Syrian
coast in preparations for a possible
strike, even as United Nations chemical
weapons inspectors on the ground in
Syria were still conducting research to
ascertain whether chemical munitions
were in fact used in the attack in
Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, the
Syrian capital.
A spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the
United Nations secretary general, said
he had given the five permanent
members of the Security Council “an
overview” of the inspector mission’s
work on Friday and that the inspectors
intended to leave Syria on Saturday
with their samples and other
information.
The spokesman, Martin Nesirky, also
said Mr. Ban would confer on Saturday
with Angela Kane, his top disarmament
official, who was returning from Syria.
He declined to specify what — if
anything — the inspectors had
concluded so far.
He also declined to specify when the
inspectors might complete their report.
“We’re not giving a timeline on that
except to say they are doing this as
swiftly as possible,” he told reporters at
the United Nations.
The Obama administration has made
clear, however, that it has already
concluded that chemical munitions
were used in Syria and that the
government of President Bashar al-
Assad was culpable. Prime Minister
David Cameron of Britain asserted the
same position, and the British had been
expected to join the Americans in a
possible military strike aimed at Mr.
Assad’s forces. But in a surprise vote
on Thursday, British lawmakers
rejected Mr. Cameron’s plan, opposing
what they called an ill-advised rush to
military action that recalled Britain’s
alliance with America in the Iraq war
10 years ago.
President François Hollande of France,
however, on Friday offered strong
support for international military
action against the Syrian government.
The Aug. 21 chemical attack “must not
go unpunished,” Mr. Hollande said in
an interview with Le Monde , the
French daily newspaper. “Otherwise, it
would be taking the risk of an
escalation that would normalize the use
of these weapons and threaten other
countries.”
A military strike against government
targets would have a “deterrence
value” and push President Assad
toward a negotiated “political solution”
to the conflict, said Mr. Hollande,
referring to France’s explicitly stated
goal.
Mr. Assad has denied responsibility for
the use of chemical weapons. Backed
by allies Iran and Russia, he has said
that if chemical munitions were
deployed, the insurgents trying to
topple him must have used them.
Although Mr. Hollande has presented
no specific evidence linking the Syrian
government to the attacks, he has
spoken confidently of its culpability.
Parliamentary approval is not
required for French military action,
and Mr. Hollande has said his
government is “prepared to punish”
those responsible.
“France possesses a body of evidence
that goes in the sense of the regime’s
responsibility” for the chemical attacks
near Damascus, Mr. Hollande said. The
use of chemical weapons there is an
“established fact,” he said, and “it is
known that the opposition possesses
none of these weapons.”
The government of Turkey, an
outspoken opponent of Mr. Assad,
added its voice on Friday to those who
have concluded that Mr. Assad’s forces
used the weapons and who assert that
they have proof. Ahmet Davutoglu,
Turkey’s foreign minister, said in a
televised statement that Turkish
intelligence sources had what he called
“healthy information” that implicated
the Syrian government.
“The regime responsibility is
undeniable when launching vehicles,
angles between launching locations and
targeted regions, traces are
considered,” Mr. Davutoglu said,
without further elaborating on the
precise origins of such information.
By contrast, Iranian officials, who
frequently remind the world that they
were targeted with Iraqi chemical
weapons during the Iran-Iraq war of
the 1980s, said Mr. Assad’s government
had assured them that it had never used
such munitions.
“Iran, as a main victim of use of
chemical weapons, is against any kind
of usage of this inhuman warfare,”
Iran’s ambassador to the United
Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said in
an e-mailed statement to The New York
Times. He urged other countries to let
the United Nations inspectors in Syria
complete their work, and he indirectly
criticized the United States and France
for moving missile-armed warships
closer to the Syrian coast.
“We are against any foreign military
intervention, which will damage the
efforts aimed at finding a political
solution for the conflict in Syria,” Mr.
Khazaee said. “We believe that missiles
have never been peace messengers in
the Middle East and the rest of the
world.”
France’s determination contrasted
sharply with the go-slowly approach of
Germany. “We are pressing for the
United Nations Security Council to
reach a common position and for the
U.N. inspectors to conclude their work
as soon as possible,” the German
foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle,
said in comments reported by a
regional newspaper , The Neue
Osnabrücker Zeitung. Referring to
German participation in a military
strike, he said, “Such participation was
not requested of us, and neither are we
contemplating it.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s
government and the opposition have
been cautious on Syria, anxious in a
war-averse country not to have a
military conflict become part of the
campaign for elections on Sept. 22. Ms.
Merkel’s main rivals, the Social
Democrats, have urged President
Obama to delay any military action at
least until after he meets fellow world
leaders at Group of 20 summit meeting
in St. Petersburg, Russia, late next
week. Ms. Merkel, while condemning
the chemical weapons attack in strong
terms, has avoided any comment on
suggestions from the Social Democrats
that she mediate between the Russians
and Americans on Syria.
In a telephone call Thursday with Mr.
Hollande, Ms. Merkel said that while
Germany declined to take part in a
military action, she believed that the
chemical weapons attack should not go
unpunished.
Mr. Hollande’s interview appeared just
a day after Mr. Cameron was handed a
stinging rebuke in the House of
Commons, where Parliament rejected
British military participation in any
strike on the Syrian government.
British legislators rejected a motion
urging an international response to the
chemical weapons attack by a vote of
285 to 272, reflecting concerns that
there was insufficient evidence that the
attack had been carried out by forces
loyal to Mr. Assad. Lawmakers were
also worried about the strategy behind
the call for limited strikes, which they
feared could escalate the conflict and
strengthen opposition forces aligned
with Al Qaeda.
The United States will continue trying
to build an international coalition,
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said
Friday in Manila, the Philippine
capital.
“Our approach is to continue to find an
international coalition that will act
together,” Mr. Hagel said. “And I think
you’re seeing a number of countries
state, publicly state, their position on
the use of chemical weapons.”
Mr. Cameron addressed the
parliamentary defeat on Friday, telling
journalists in London: “We will
continue to take a case to the United
Nations. We will continue to work in
all the organizations we are members
of — whether the E.U., or NATO, or the
G-8 or the G-20 — to condemn what’s
happened in Syria.
“It’s important we uphold the
international taboo on the use of
chemical weapons,” he continued. “But
one thing that was proposed, the
potential — only after another vote —
involvement of the British military in
any action, that won’t be happening.”
Mr. Obama has no hope of obtaining a
mandate for a military strike in the
United Nations Security Council. Russia,
Syria’s longtime backer, has long
opposed military intervention of any
sort, and China, which has urged that
no decision be made until the results of
the investigation by United Nations
inspectors are revealed, has continued
to push for more diplomacy.
On Friday, Yuri V. Ushakov, the top
foreign policy aide to President
Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, said Russia
was “actively working to avoid a
forceful intervention in Syria,” the
Interfax news service reported.
“We would not like the situation to
approach one when one government,
or group of governments themselves,
issue accusations, judge them and carry
out their own personal sentence,” he
said.
Mr. Ushakov said the United States had
not shared intelligence showing that
Mr. Assad was behind last week’s
chemical weapons attack, and “we do
not believe it.”
Aleksei K. Pushkov, chairman of the
Russian Parliament’s foreign affairs
committee, described the British
Parliament’s rejection of military
action as evidence of a “deepening
schism” in the West.
“The refusal of Great Britain to support
aggression against Syria is the strongest
strike against the positions of the
supporters of war, both for NATO and
for the U.S.A.,” Mr. Pushkov said in a
Twitter post. “The schism is getting
deeper.”
Mr. Pushkov wrote earlier that Mr.
Obama wanted to strike Syria this
week, before his departure for the
Group of 20 summit meeting in St.
Petersburg, Russia, next week.
George Osborne, chancellor of the
Exchequer and a senior politician in
Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party, told
the BBC on Friday that Parliament’s
rejection of military action would
bring “a national soul-searching about
our role in the world and whether
Britain wants to play a big part in
upholding the international system.”
He was optimistic, however, that
Britain’s “special relationship” with the
United States would survive. “There’s a
bit of hyperbole on this in the last 24
hours,” he said. “The relationship with
the United States is a very old one, very
deep and operates on many layers.”
The British Foreign Office on Friday
warned its citizens against “all but
essential travel” to Lebanon,
particularly areas close to the border
with Syria, citing “the recent upsurge in
violence and wider regional tensions.”