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

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.”

Last week’s attacks took place in the context of a government offensive against rebel forces in the al-Ghouta area, east of Damascus.

In one passage the JIC appears to weaken its own conclusions by noting that there was “no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now” – given the presence of the UN inspectors. It wrote that permission to authorise CW had “probably been delegated” by Assad to “senior regime commanders, such as [*]”. It added: “But any deliberate change in the scale and nature of use would require his authorisation.”

That language suggests the possibility, as reported in the US, of unauthorised or accidental use of CW munitions.

The JIC chairman notes there was “the closest possible co-operation with the agencies [presumably a reference to MI6 and GCHQ] in producing the assessment. We have also worked in concert with the US intelligence community and agree with the conclusions they have reached”. The analysis of the attacks is based solely on a review of video footage. It concludes that the scenes would have been hard to fake and are consistent with an attack using a nerve agent, such as sarin. Many chemical weapons experts have seen this footage and come to the same conclusion. What is surprising is that the UK document adds nothing to the speculation – informed as it is – around the incidents.

Britain has stated on previous occasions that it has proof of sarin attacks during the Syrian conflict but has chosen not to give details beyond saying the evidence comes from tests on physiological samples. The government could have backed up those claims by describing what the tests revealed. Sarin itself? Or a by-product? Sarin breaks down in a day or two into isopropyl methyl phosphonic acid and realistically this can only come from sarin. A secondary breakdown product is methylphosphonic acid but this is the signature of a number of chemicals, not just sarin.

This is where the UN team’s findings are needed: they will almost certainly be able to say whether or not chemical weapons were used in Syria and lay out their scientific evidence. – (Guardian service)