Assad and Obama Whiff at Chances to Defuse Crisis

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The hypothesis that the Syrian chemical weapons attacks may not have been perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad – or the opposition – has been graining traction. Reuters reports (Sept. 8):

Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last four-and-a-half months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied … Germany’s Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday, citing German intelligence.

In other words

Syrian government forces may have carried out a chemical weapons attack close to Damascus without the personal permission of President Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 6, in a New York Times op-ed Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) lamented the Obama administration’s failure to share intelligence on Syrian chemical-weapons attacks with – never mind the public – lawmakers themselves. In the course of the op-ed, it was surprising to hear one of the most progressive members of Congress cite the right-wing Daily Caller:

The danger of the administration’s approach was illustrated by a widely read report last week in The Daily Caller, which claimed that the Obama administration had selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes in Syria, with one report “doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.”

The allegedly doctored report attributes the attack to the Syrian general staff. But according to The Daily Caller, “it was clear that ‘the Syrian general staff were out of their minds with panic that an unauthorized strike had been launched by the 155th Brigade in express defiance of their instructions.’ ”

I don’t know who is right, the administration or The Daily Caller. But for me to make the correct decision on whether to allow an attack, I need to know. And so does the American public.

The author of the Aug. 29 Daily Caller article was Kenneth Timmerman, president of the conservative Foundation for Democracy in Iran, who ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in Maryland last year. He wrote:

The Obama administration has selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes on Syria, former military officers with access to the original intelligence reports say, in a manner that goes far beyond at critics charged the Bush administration of doing in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

According to these officers, who served in top positions in the United States, Britain, France, Israel, and Jordan, a Syrian military communication intercepted by Israel’s famed Unit 8200 electronic intelligence outfit has been doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.

… According to the doctored report, the chemical attack was carried out by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother.

However, the original communication intercepted by Unit 8200 between a major in command of the rocket troops assigned to the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division, and the general staff, shows just the opposite.

The general staff officer asked the major if he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack. From the tone of the conversation, it was clear that “the Syrian general staff were out of their minds with panic that an unauthorized strike had been launched by the 155th Brigade in express defiance of their instructions,” the former officers say.

According to the transcript of the original Unit 8200 report, the major “hotly denied firing any of his missiles” and invited the general staff to come and verify that all his weapons were present.

The report contains a note at the end that the major was interrogated by Syrian intelligence for three days, then returned to command of his unit. “All of his weapons were accounted for,” the report stated. [Emphasis added.]

In his op-ed, Congressman Grayson isn’t pushing the story that the opposition was responsible for the attack. He states that “The allegedly doctored report attributes the attack to the Syrian general staff,” and by implication President Assad, when the order may have come from lower on the command chain. But Grayson fails to acknowledge what Timmerman reported in the last two paragraphs of the excerpt. The Syrian general staff accepted the major’s denial as, if not truth, a story to which they chose to stick. Assad and the military don’t seem interested in pinning the blame on a unit that was attacking independently.

Too bad because it might have provided Assad with an out – remember he’s not being threatened with strikes for possessing chemical weapons, which he doesn’t deny, but for using them. He could have claimed the chemical-weapons attack wasn’t a top-command decision, punished the major or one of the brigade or division commanders to which Bild am Sonntag alludes.

Instead Assad clings to claims – true or not, but which the West, aside from Russia and Iran, reject – that the opposition was responsible. It would also have provided an out for President Obama, who, just as black and white as Assad, holds the Assad regime responsible. If both had dared to venture into the gray area of an attack down the command chain, they could have defused the crisis – especially if the United States had provided a forum for Syria to explain how that happened.