Only a few weeks into the latest round of horrors in Syria, we are getting used to the debasement of “intelligence” to serve the crudest political ends. In September, President Hollande showed the U.N. secretary general and journalists round the French military intelligence HQ at Creil north of Paris, where the amazed visitors admired the big screens showing Syria, Mali, and other hot spots monitored by the DRM’s satellites. Every schoolboy knows nowadays that the headquarters of the Russian secret service, the FSB, is just outside the Moscow ring road by the Warsaw Highway. After Mr. Snowden’s revelations, secrecy as well as privacy seems to be becoming history and, as the French say, “nous sommes tous surveillés.”
The choreography of decloaking has been rapid. In 1990 Norman Schwarzkopf brought us military video as entertainment. The Balkan wars showed how secret reports could terrify and blackmail leaders of small countries. Mysterious attacks on civilians could force the diplomatic pace. Single, dramatic weapons discharges turned policy nicely.
One mortar burst was definitely not very much like another when carried out by covert-action commandos. It ceased to matter that the truth could not be concealed for long. Public attention is limited and impatient for novelty.
In 2003 we all went to war in Iraq on the basis of “faulty intelligence,” which had initially been so persuasive precisely because we all still felt that the more secret it was, the more authority it should have. We should know better now. In fact, we do.
In 2013 “intelligence” has been paraded on all sides shamelessly and suggestively—as if to confess that they fooled us last time. Only by trying to conceal things in plain sight could the show go on. The sheer impudence of it suggests irony and weariness among leaders, who want to deceive but who expect—and perhaps wish—not to be believed. It’s hard to believe that President Obama wanted to intervene in Syria; he talked about it far too much. The big stick traditionally requires the soft voice, not the shrieking of the orchestra of the liberal media.
These are perhaps complicated thoughts, but this is a complicated crisis.
The comings and goings over whether the Syrian regime launched chemical weapons at a suburb of Damascus on August 21 have already left an interesting trail. Secretary Kerry started by saying he had the proof. There was lots of proof, but none on view, apart from some fragments of circumstantial detail like Syrian troops donning gas masks. Then the Israelis said they had the proof, but it was far too secret to show us and far too precious to show to the U.S. secretary of defense when he visited Tel Aviv.
Then the president of German foreign intelligence, the BND (Bundes Nachrichtendienst), revealed that President Assad had repeatedly refused permission for his men to use chemical rockets. Bild am Sonntag had a carefully written story in which the BND was said to have briefed German parliamentarians that there was proof that it was definitely not the Syrian president who had used the gas—and perhaps much more was said.
Syria during the Cold War was run on the Soviet side by the East German Stasi International as a sort of subcontract. When the Stasi went over to the BND in the 1980’s, their Syrian expertise and contacts went with them. The Germans have had good contacts since the kaiser refurbished Saladin’s tomb in Damascus.
Other “intelligence agencies” aren’t so perspicacious. The various U.S. revelations have come and gone—whenever one of their intelligence scoops was exposed to the light of day, it has vanished, like the Canterville ghost faced with the awesome power of central heating. One Israeli commentator remarked that there is now so much intelligence material collected on any one day that, as with the Bible, you can pick and mix to prove anything you want. Enter Mr. Snowden, again.
No one seems to have cottoned to the fact that there is so much data that constructing backstories is not very difficult. Backtracking is what you do in “intelligence.” Mr. Snowden told us that this is what the NSA does. It doesn’t attempt to analyze the tsunamis of data in real time. It waits till there is a suspect or a theme, and then you look back at your archives—in the NSA’s case, unbelievably massive digital archives.
In pointing the finger at the Syrian dictatorship, there’s no need to leap on every chance radio transmission that sounds relevant today. You can do it far more thoroughly. You track the units you suspect, measure the changing volumes of traffic on the command lines, follow the commanders home to their families every night. You don’t rely on single facts; you have a narrative. But we’re not being shown that yet. And the journalists still publishing Mr. Snowden’s shock-horror revelations haven’t twigged what he’s telling them.
For the moment we have to rely on the United Nations.
Prof. Åke Sellström’s U.N. report on the August 21 gas attack near Damascus might (perhaps should) have identified a “smoking gun.” Sadly, it doesn’t. The report was far harder to find than the press release, and this probably explains why most commentators don’t seem to have read it. It’s quite short, fewer than 40 pages including appendices, tables, and photographs, and a lot of the pages come to a strange abrupt end halfway down.
The report makes for horrifying reading, and the team members were very brave, being sniped at on one occasion as they rushed in under the cover of temporary ceasefires to collect evidence, escorted by “a leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area.”
Their conclusions overturn a lot of the initial reports. The U.N. team concluded that it was high-grade sarin, and they discovered one, just possibly two, rockets contaminated with the nerve gas. They examined 36 survivors between 7 and 68 years old, 22 male, 14 female, with an average age of 30. They had classic sarin symptoms and showed the eye problems and other symptomatology one would expect. Hair samples taken from the survivors were negative—perhaps their exposure was too recent. All had been treated with atropine, the nerve-gas antidote. No nontreated survivor was available as a control.
So the early horrific medical reports of different symptoms, a “yellow gas,” and a pronounced odor must have been created by fear and confusion and, perhaps, a little embellishment. Military-grade sarin is invisible and odorless, and the adult death rate is very high. The gas seems to have volatilized slowly because of the cold weather, and the deadly sarin crept into cellars and basements where people were sheltering. Homemade sarin, it seems, would probably have stayed more mercifully inert.
Decay products from the sarin found in Ghouta were unevenly distributed, and none seemed affected by the proximity explosion that would presumably have dispersed the gas warhead’s contents before it struck the ground.
The U.N. team collected metal debris from rocket attacks and demonstrated that it was contaminated with military-grade sarin. The report shows that one rocket, possibly two, could have carried a 50-liter sarin payload. Yet the report contains newsworthy but little-reported caveats such as “the sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved” (p. 18) and “individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated” (p. 22).
The photographs in Professor Sellström’s report, one of which showed a rocket tail fin stuck dramatically into a rather convenient piece of soft ground, were frankly unconvincing; interestingly, none has been carried in the media. My cynical old reporter’s instinct leaped for the “here’s one I prepared earlier” caption.
The U.N. experts seemed to be unsure about the rockets, pointing out that some of the rocket parts didn’t seem to be in the right place. They also seemed to me rather rusty, as if they’d been lying round for months.
While it does seem that at least one rocket loaded with sarin may have arrived in Ghouta more or less on the dates specified, there is nothing more.
I am not persuaded by the fragmentary evidence that the rockets arrived from the northwest, though it’s possible. The Markale mortarings in Sarajevo have made me skeptical about directions of travel in these cases.
There is no smoking rocket in Damascus.
There is also no motive. The attack defies common sense, and this has made many people uneasy, unhappy with the revolving door of “intelligence revelations” on which Mr. Kerry has planted his standard. It’s almost as if we’re being told that we’re being lied to. It’s uncomfortable. And the U.N. report does not resolve the matter.
With the technical evidence uncertain, we’re being forced back to the politics, to what interventionists have been calling the “irrelevant” cui bono argument.
The timing of the gas attack, if Assad did it, is inexplicable, especially if there really was only the one rocket. The Ghouta East area where the attack was initially reported to have taken place was quiet, and had been taken back into government hands in May. In fact the attack is now reported to have taken place also in Moadamiyah, which is Ghouta West. Infighting between rebel groups there had led to some militia in Ghouta East asking to return to the government fold on August 18, three days before the gas attack, making Ghouta a less than obvious target for the regime.
More mysterious still is the decision to fire even the one gas rocket when a U.N. weapons-inspection team had just arrived in Damascus to investigate alleged use of poison gas in Khan al-Asal near Aleppo—and indeed at two other sites previously a secret but revealed by Professor Sellström as Sheik Maqsood and Saraqueb. These attacks, the Assad regime claims, were directed against their soldiers by rebel groups, and indeed, while it’s not conclusive as evidence given the vagaries of gas, it was Syrian troops who died in March at Khan al-Asal.
So it wasn’t in anyone’s obvious interest, unless you follow the line that the U.N. team had to be diverted from Khan al-Asal by something more dramatic closer to hand. But then that hasn’t worked.
The trouble with the cui bono argument is that, if it fails as it seems to have done in Damascus, you are forced to look for stranger explanations, which defy both Occam and Sherlock Holmes. And weird explanations abound in cyberspace.
At one end there are complicated conspiracy theories usually involving arcane infighting between the many “rebel groups” slugging it out with the Assad regime. Explanations of political motivation seem to center on Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to Washington and now head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) in Riyadh. Prince Bandar is nicknamed “the Lover” by the many jihadist groups he funds in Syria; he has a secret base in Jordan,which the Jordanians are now getting very twitchy about; and he is darkly rumored in Saudi Arabia to be pursuing a “personal policy” in Syria. This view is interestingly shared by Toby Jones from Rutgers University, who sees Prince Bandar as influential against both Assad and the real target, Iran.
Mr. Snowden has things to say about the prince, revealing that Bandar says he has some sort of power to unleash terrorist groups unless Western governments do as he says, like cutting short corruption enquiries in London in 2008. Sounds far-fetched to me.
But the story I like most from the web is the one with the greatest cock-up factor, which to any hardened journalist is a better seal of approval than the most cunning of plans.
This story, which seemed well sourced and had some good detail, explained that Al Qaeda fighters had been storing homemade chemical weapons in tunnels on the fringes of Ghouta East, from which they had recently been driven by irritated locals.
Moving the wretched contraptions at night (the gas attack took place in total darkness between 2 and 5 a.m.), they “mishandled” the devices and set them off. Once again, Prince Bandar is the Mephistopheles to these hapless demons.
We know a lot about sarin because of the trial in Japan almost 20 years ago of the maniacs from the Aum Shinrikyo, who released nerve gas on the Tokyo underground in 1995. They found sarin very easy to make. None of them had a background in organic chemistry. Any science Ph.D., it seems, will start you off.
The Aum Shinrikyo put their sarin into plastic bags, wrapped them in newspaper, and pierced the bags with specially sharpened umbrellas. Only one of the five assassins was affected by the sarin, and he successfully jabbed himself with atropine afterward. I have been told that any illegal drug lab in the world is manned by “really brilliant” chemists who would have no trouble making the gas.
Thankfully, they are not paid to do so.
But someone has been using nerve gas in Syria. We now know, thanks to Professor Sellström, that there have been three suspected attacks so far. The Russians claim it was the rebels. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hague say it was the regime.
Most entries I’ve seen on Facebook and every educated nonpolitical person I’ve spoken with refuse to believe Kerry and Hague and side with Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, if only because he makes more sense.
And the vast majority of people have not had the benefit of being reminded that blaming the regime has been tried before and has gone wrong.
In April another U.N. official, Carla del Ponte, cast doubt on the story that it was the regime that had used poison gas in Aleppo. She suggested that it was more likely the opposition. Government sources admitted that Syrian chemical weapons could have been captured when rebel groups stormed military ammunition dumps. The CIA admitted that it has “lost track” of Syrian chemical stockpiles.
There were embarrassment and vehement contradictions all round.
The attempt to blame the regime for the earlier gas attacks recapitulated a forgotten story from May 2012 when “shadowy gunmen” murdered dozens of villagers near Houla. The United Nations condemned the Syrian government, but after a few weeks they had tempered their findings. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung then reported that the dead had been Shia and the wily, deceitful perpetrators were the rebels. The Germans do seem well briefed.
Consciences that were eager to be troubled by the Houla massacre fell quiet.
This year, attempts to ensure a rebel victory have collapsed. There is chaos on the rebel side. Thanks to the clumsy intervention of the Qatar government as well as other Gulf emirates, private Sunni “wafds,” and other excited parties, the rebellion in Syria is now being waged by literally dozens of groups, probably well over one hundred. Ignoring the supposed 1,000 local militias, I recently gave up at 108 rebel groupings. I couldn’t be sure whether a particular group had just the one or several names. It’s the Liberation Front of Judea problem, but far, far worse.
In January the CIA tried to get other rebel groups to turn against the Jabhat al Nusrah, the largest of the extremist groups. They found few takers and much angry abuse.
The Qataris have gone—they say. The Saudis are trying to sponsor cannon that don’t roll about the deck so much. But there is one benefit of having so many little military groupuscules: Many, perhaps even the majority, will not be genuine liberation fronts. They will, with the weary inevitability of these conflicts, be controlled by foreign intelligence agencies. The motive, for the most part, is merely to have a hand in the game—eyes and ears on the ground, and so forth. Even countries and agencies that support the Assad government will have an intelligence-gathering groupuscule on the ground, on the other side of the fence. It’s cheap. It lets you see what your rivals and enemies are up to. A few bullets fired in the wrong direction are a small price to pay.
This is wise and good statecraft—limiting the violence, controlling the extremists.
It also means that there will be lots of witnesses, though reluctant to speak up. False-flag operations need privacy and silence. This one may not get it.
Extremists in Syria are now two a penny. The cruel backbone of the Assad regime’s strategy—like that of his father before him—is to employ artillery to kill the rebel fighters rather than use infantry—which, though quicker and cleaner, ensures (as in Mali) that the rebels just blend in with the sympathetic local population and reemerge later. Before you get too sentimental about this, perhaps you might recall the little film that’s done the rounds on YouTube, in which a mother tells the story of how her young son was murdered in front of her by foreign jihadists in Aleppo merely for rebuking a customer in their shop with the fatal words “I wouldn’t lend you money if you were the prophet Muhammad himself.”
If only all the extremists were as simpleminded. Many are not, but just as murderous.
If anyone is still in charge, which is doubtful, it must be Prince Bandar’s GID.
The prince is said to see Iran as the real danger and has, for the moment, shunted aside the anti-Israel Saudis. If a Sunni extremist regime can be installed in Damascus, it will then attack the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, before it’s too late.
Prince Bandar has welded together Saudi ambition and America’s Iran obsession as never before. The GID has recently notched up a major success in Egypt, manipulating the Nour Party and congratulating itself on a major coup that has in one move whipped both of the United States’ strategic partners in the country out from under it. The Saudis are afraid and in a hurry. They feel the potential Shia superstate—Iran-Iraq-Syria—breathing down their neck, and they don’t entirely trust anyone.
Nor should we, especially after September 11. In the Jabhat al Nusra refugee camps in Jordan, the children sing, “The World Trade Center has been reduced to rubble. We have humiliated America . . . ”
Again, it’s all on YouTube, though you have to look hard for it.
Very few people, though, remember August 27, 2001, when Prince Turki was suddenly dismissed as head of the GID in Riyadh. We found out many months later that he was suspected of running two parallel intelligence agencies, one of which had not been visible to his friends abroad.
Things have got a lot worse since then. Extremists—extreme even by Wahhabist standards—have somehow gained control of the covert-action arm of Saudi intelligence. Let’s call them the Ikhwan, after the seriously extreme followers of Prince Ibn Saud who carried him to power in Saudi Arabia in the 1920’s. The Ikhwan were supposedly killed by the RAF, which caught the desert warriors in the open on their way to attack Jordan in 1930.
But there’s another story, which says the Ikhwanites weren’t all killed, but the survivors were instead formed into the “White Army,” a sort of alternative security force, officered by men from a distinct and different branch of the Ibn Saud clan from the branch that officers the army. The “White Army” later became the Saudi National Guard. There is a long story of insane Saudi ambition for those who want to know it.
What matters is that the ideological descendants of these fanatics are running Saudi policy in Syria. Sure, they may not hold onto it forever. But for the moment, the Ikhwan is in the driving seat and acting recklessly.
Money talks, big money talks very loudly, and big Saudi money makes so much noise that you can’t hear anything else. An average Saudi arms deal is between $30 and $60 billion, so you won’t hear many voices raised in protest.
President Obama is trying. He’s talking about red lines, warning people that there are things they mustn’t do. Everyone assumes he means just the wicked Mr. Assad. I wonder. He must know Dr. Assad (Bashar) isn’t in charge of anything.
If there is a Mr. Assad we should worry about, it is Maher al-Assad. He runs the “pro-regime militia,” the Shababa. He gets a mention on a few specialist websites, but, some ask, is he really in charge of very much?
But then, we might also ask, how many of his fanatics obey the orders of his neighbors’ special-forces commanders?
It’s a good bet that many do.
The largest military force in Syria now is, almost certainly, no longer the Syrian army. The best guess is that the Syrian army is down to about 50,000 men, and most of them are tied down defending Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Kurdish minority enclaves from being massacred.
No, the largest military force in Syria, as the Israelis have been trying to tell everyone, is the Pasdaran/Hezbollah task force, which is reckoned to be at least 65,000 strong. Once they have rolled up the hundred-plus real and fake rebel groups in Syria, what are they going to do next?
Hezbollah has been building up “resistance cells” in Jordan since 2006, when the Palestinians let them down on the West Bank. The Jordanians are worried.
The Middle East is getting ideologically and religiously more excited. Sunnis are not the only ones with exalted religious views. The Ikhwan are not the only people dreaming about prophecy and approaching change. Shi’ite prophetic books tell of the assassination of a leader in Syria, bringing in “an army from the East” that ensures eventual Shia victory. The Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, Nasrullah, educated in Qom as he was, is said to set great store by Al-Jafr.
Everyone in the West is talking about war crimes, but this entire civil war in Syria is a crime against the people there, and everyone seems to be enjoying becoming an accessory to it. The cynics, the overt ones and the hypocritically disguised ones, are advocating not a negotiated settlement in Syria but a “Thirty Years War” in the Middle East, in which multiple forces uncongenial to the West exhaust themselves in an attempt to destroy one another. This appears to be the Israeli view. It may also be the view of the Kerry/Rice faction in Washington, though they have been slow to grasp the point that the jihadis should not be allowed to win. Until the middle of September they seemed to be itching to become Al Qaeda’s air force.
It must not be too late for the alternative, and though the Russians have exercised a cynicism equal to anyone else’s so far, they may come round to peace, if only because they have grasped that a Thirty Years War is not containable.
But the alternative means radical change in policy.
Perhaps, with Dr. Kissinger there to remind us of the foreign-policy miracle of the 1970’s, when President Nixon swapped South Vietnam for China, Mr. Obama might swap Riyadh for Tehran and wrong-foot everyone else. He does not have the handicap of his predecessors’ close business connections with the powerful in Riyadh to restrain him. And he has power and patronage to match the Desert Kingdom’s collection of Washington clients.
The world is changing fast now, unnoticed by the usual suspects. Suddenly, the United States produces more oil than Saudi Arabia—as a Saudi prince admitted some months ago. The fracking revolution is about to transform the international gas market.
Perhaps the Middle East is ripe for revolution. If so, Syria may yet prove to be merely the catalyst in a bigger story. Many countries in the region, not just America’s enemies, are unstable, and their leadership vacillating. There is the possibility of major tectonic change.
The old policies have just been shown to be inadequate, and perhaps we have also been shown that there is no magic formula, no “intelligence” that can make up for determination and dynamism. We have been shown that the exhausted routines of “humanitarian intervention” do not answer what the world faces in Syria in 2013. Some leaders have already learned that lesson. Mr. Cameron has just found out that 2013 is not 2003, and that he is not Mr. Blair.
We are all being given the opportunity to observe that, stubbornly, history often fails to repeat itself. And as we watch, mumbling old mantras to ourselves, a lot more people in the Middle East are going to die.