The suspicious attack that killed 26 people in northern Syria last week exposed the difficulty of determining whether the Syrian regime has resorted to using chemical weapons as well as the lingering uncertainty over how President Obama would respond if what he has called a “red line” is crossed.
Current and former U.S. officials acknowledged that confirming a small-scale chemical weapons attack poses technical challenges that have been compounded by limitations on the ability of U.S. spy agencies to gather reliable intelligence, let alone air or soil samples, inside Syria.
The two factors are why U.S. intelligence analysts are still working to determine whether the attack near Aleppo last Tuesday involved the use of chemical compounds. The Syrian government and rebels have accused each other of unleashing chemical weapons.
The course Obama intends to take if confronted with proof of a chemical attack is equally unclear. The Pentagon has prepared calibrated options, ranging from airstrikes to sending troops to seize weapons sites. But officials said they haven’t taken the advance steps necessary to carry out such orders because planning has been hobbled by concerns about the political backlash to a potential U.S. intervention as well as struggles to coordinate with regional allies.
“If we had to go in tomorrow, I’d say we aren’t ready,” said an Obama administration official involved in preparations for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. “One thing we want to avoid is having one group securing the sites and another group bombing them.”
The level of uncertainty surrounding U.S. contingency planning two years into a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people contrasts with the clarity of Obama’s repeated admonitions to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
After initial reports indicated chemical weapons might have been used in the attack near Aleppo last week, Obama said such a step by Assad would be a “game changer.” He said he had instructed his “teams” to “find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed.”
The United States has worked with regional allies to prepare responses if the regime uses its chemical weapons or if events require seizing weapons sites. Some of the largest depots are near Syria’s border with Jordan, and the administration has sent thousands of protective suits and more than 150 military personnel to help train special forces teams there to secure weapons sites, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
Obama’s rhetoric has seemed aimed at deterring Assad from using chemical weapons while preserving flexibility for the administration in how it intends to respond. But the ambiguity has also exposed Obama to growing criticism of his handling of the crisis in Syria.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, mocked Obama in a series of appearances last week. In a PBS interview, he said that the U.S. threshold for action ”can’t be a pink line. It can’t be a dotted line. It can’t be an imaginary line.”
Rogers said he is convinced that Syria has already used small quantities of chemical munitions — an accusation that goes beyond what U.S. intelligence officials have said — and called for “action to disrupt their ability to deliver chemical weapons.”
U.S. intelligence officials and weapons experts said emerging information indicates that chemical weapons were not employed. Citing the absence of telltale signs among those being treated, the administration officials said victims appeared “asymptomatic” for chemical weapons exposure.
Outside experts have also voiced skepticism, noting that video footage showed that medical personnel treating victims did not don protective garments or masks. If there had been an attack with sarin or VX gas, the deadliest agents in Syria’s extensive arsenal, most of the people present would have been fatally or seriously contaminated, said Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert for the European Union. “Fatalities happen literally within minutes or even seconds,” he said. “There’s nothing that suggests that these people were even remotely exposed to nerve agents.”
Difficulty gathering evidence
Tests of nuclear devices send plumes of radiation into the atmosphere that aircraft can detect and analyze. By contrast, chemical munitions such as sarin evaporate quickly, leaving few recoverable traces even within the immediate radius of an attack.
The United Nations plans to send a team into Syria to investigate the Aleppo strike and similar incidents. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent a letter to the Syrian government Friday requesting expanded access for U.N. investigators to all sites where chemical weapons are suspected of being used, even in small doses.
A European official said, “We need to know what the precise details were, who was affected and how.”