A map of the alleged chemical attack sites in Damascus (/ )
Three days before the rockets fell outside Damascus, a team of Syrian specialists gathered in the northern suburb of Adra for a task that U.S. officials say had become routine in the third year of the country’s civil conflict: filling warheads with deadly chemicals to kill Syrian rebels.
The preparations, as described by U.S. intelligence analysts, continued from Aug. 18 until just after midnight on Aug. 21, when the projectiles were loaded into rocket launchers behind the government’s defensive lines. Then, at 2:30 a.m., a half-dozen densely populated neighborhoods were jolted awake by a series of explosions, followed by an oozing blanket of suffocating gas.
Unknown to Syrian officials, U.S. spy agencies recorded each step in the alleged chemical attack, from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials. Those records and intercepts would become the core of the Obama administration’s evidentiary case linking the Syrian government to what one official called an “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror” — the use of outlawed toxins to kill nearly 1,500 civilians, including at least 426 children.
Pulling back the curtain on some of the United States’ most sensitive collection efforts, the Obama administration released on Friday its long-awaited intelligence assessment of the Aug. 21 event, explaining in rare detail the basis for its claim that Syria was behind the release of deadly gas, the grisly effects of which have been documented in more than 100 amateur videos.
The four-page assessment and accompanying map revealed for the first time how communications intercepts and satellite imagery picked up key decisions and actions on the ground.
In choosing to release the document, White House officials anticipated the likely comparisons to the famously inaccurate intelligence reports from a decade ago that claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in his remarks on the release of the intelligence assessment, said White House officials were “more than mindful of the Iraq experience.”
“We will not repeat that moment,” Kerry said. “Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves.”
The document proposes a possible motive for the attack — a desperate effort to push back rebels from several areas in the capital’s densely packed eastern suburbs — and also suggests that the high civilian death toll surprised and panicked senior Syrian officials, who called off the attack and then tried to cover it up.
“We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive,” it says, “who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”
While unusually detailed, the assessment does not include photographs, recordings or other hard evidence to support its claims. Nor does it offer proof to back up the administration’s assertion that top-ranking Syrian officials — possibly including President Bashar al-Assad — were complicit in the attack.
“There is additional intelligence that remains classified because of sources and methods concerns,” the report says. “That is being provided to Congress and international partners.”
Among the surprises in the report was the U.S. estimate for the dead and wounded. The new figure, 1,429, was about four times higher than a British casualty estimate released Thursday.
“This assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information,” the report said.
The material, prepared by senior intelligence officials, was said to reflect the judgments of the CIA, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies involved in gathering information on the Syrian conflict. Using understated phrasing typical of bureaucratic reports, it asserts with “high confidence” that the Assad government launched a chemical weapons attack, using what it said was “nerve agent,” a class of chemical munitions that includes sarin.
Echoing the findings of a British intelligence assessment a day earlier, the report links the Assad government to “multiple” chemical weapons attacks in the past year, including a small-scale attack in the same part of the Damascus area that was struck Aug. 21.
It suggested that a relatively controlled use of chemicals had in recent months become part of the normal military strategy whenever government forces were unable to push back rebel offensives or break through defensive fortifications.