British report on attack is informed speculation
A striking lack of scientific evidence leads committee to fall back on well-worn assertions
UN chemical weapons experts visit a Damascus suburb on Wednesday for a tour of areas struck by a purported poison gas attack. Photograph: AP
The report by Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) on the Syrian chemical warfare attacks fails to answer a central question – about the motivation of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Its conclusion that the Syrian government was “highly likely” to be responsible largely rests on precedent and the firm view that the opposition was not capable of carrying out attacks on this scale.
The JIC did say it had “some intelligence” to suggest “regime culpability” for the August 21st attack, which it says resulted in at least 350 fatalities. David Cameron, according to a covering letter from the JIC chairman, Jon Day, has had access to it all. But there is no further elaboration on this central point.
There is also a striking lack of any scientific evidence in the document.
The committee’s most unequivocal statement is that it was “not possible” for the anti-Assad opposition to have carried out a chemical weapons (CW) attack on this scale. The Syrian regime and supporters such as Russia (“with a good degree of confidence”) claim (though without producing supporting evidence) that that is exactly what did happen. The JIC addressed this point simply by noting that a number of (unidentified) opposition groups “continue to seek a CW capability”.
Overall, Day told the prime minister, the JIC had “high confidence” in the accuracy of all its assessments. But there was one significant qualification: “Except in relation to the regime’s precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time – though intelligence may increase our confidence in the future.”
Motivation does remain a puzzle – given the presence of UN weapons inspectors on a pre-existing mission in Damascus when the attack took place and the almost certain knowledge that chemical weapons use would attract international opprobrium as well as cross President Barack Obama’s famous “red line”.
The JIC case rests on evidence that has been challenged by Syria and Russia: the assessment (shared by the US, Britain, France and Israel), that the Assad regime had already used CW on 14 occasions from 2012, establishing “a clear pattern of regime use”. But Britain has not laid out the details of that older evidence.
Following on from that, there was “no credible intelligence” to substantiate claims of opposition use and therefore “no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.
In a more opaque section of the letter, Day told Cameron: “We also have a limited but growing body of intelligence [that] supports the judgment that the regime was responsible for the attacks and that they were conducted to help clear the opposition from strategic parts of Damascus. Some of this intelligence is highly sensitive but you have had access to it all.”