On August 31, President Obama announced that he would seek congressional approval for military action against Syria, in response to chemical-weapons attacks that took place outside Damascus ten days earlier. The White House said the attacks killed 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, and that the U.S.-imposed “red line” had been crossed by the Syrian military. The following day, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the United States had “independently” obtained samples of hair and blood of victims from “first responders” via “an appropriate chain of custody,” and that those samples tested positive for “signatures” of sarin nerve gas. (U.N. inspectors who had taken such samples had left Syria only one day earlier, announcing that a final report on their findings could take as long as two weeks to complete.) As of this writing, the White House’s latest statements on the alleged attacks aligned with the assertion—made without any presentation of direct evidence—by President Obama on August 28 that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.
In making his sarin-gas claims, Kerry also said that the President could decide to act against Syria even if Congress did not approve an attack, though the secretary of state added that Obama hoped for congressional approval, since “America is stronger when we act in unity.” (Obama’s aides had been saying that the President would not seek congressional approval and that he had the right to act without it.)
President Obama had tried to reassure the public and Congress that the attack would not be part of a sustained military action. The President had promised a “limited and narrow” operation aimed only at punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. Despite the White House’s assurances and claims against Assad, many members of Congress have insisted on a vote authorizing a military operation, and some, especially Republicans, remained skeptical that their colleagues would vote in favor of such an operation. On September 1, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of a House counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee, denied that the President had made a convincing case for attacking Syria and said that, “if the vote was today, it would probably be a ‘no’ vote.” On the same day, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he did not believe that the use of force would be approved—and that, in any case, the U.S. military was not in any condition to undertake yet another military strike.
Members of the U.S. Congress were not alone in their skepticism. Russian President Vladimir Putin called claims that the Syrian military was behind the attacks “utter nonsense,” since government troops were winning the civil war, and a desperate attack with such weapons was not necessary. Putin further implied that the chemical-weapons attacks could have been the work of the rebel forces the United States has been supporting, a “provocation” staged by those “who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict.” Putin challenged the White House to make its case before the U.N. Security Council. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in Parliament over “humanitarian intervention” in the Syrian conflict.
Tellingly for the Obama administration’s claims, U.S. intelligence agencies are also reportedly skeptical: According to the Associated Press, unnamed U.S. intelligence officials said that the White House’s information supposedly linking the Assad government to the chemical-weapons attacks was “not a slam dunk.” As reported by the AP, U.S. intelligence agencies still had doubts concerning just who had access to Syrian chemical weapons and whether Assad himself had ordered the attacks. The White House had, according to intelligence sources, wanted evidence linking the attacks to Assad himself or to his inner circle, but no such evidence was forthcoming, raising the possibility that a “rogue” military commander could have acted on his own.
According to the AP, both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have human-intelligence sources on the ground in Syria, but those sources include the rebel commanders themselves, as well as others who have to cross out of Syria to report to American controllers in Jordan and Turkey. The U.S. “humint” operation is small, and gathering, disseminating, and evaluating the information is time-consuming, so the United States has relied on the intelligence agencies of Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia for additional information. Thus far, those sources have apparently not confirmed the White House’s allegations. We should also recall that then-CIA Director George Tenet used the same phrase (“slam dunk”) to describe the intelligence the United States supposedly had concerning Iraq’s possession of “weapons of mass destruction” in 2002. It’s possible that U.S. intelligence officials are talking anonymously to AP reporters to protect their agencies from being blamed for whatever consequences follow a U.S. attack on Syria—and to distance themselves from future revelations about the truth of the Obama administration’s claims.