The Syrian Conflict, Chemical Weapons, the UN Report, and the Danger of a New Middle East War

Syria UN vehicleUntil last week, the question that has consumed the public interest since the end of August has been whether or not the US will launch an attack on Syria to ‘punish’ the Assad government for the August 21st gas attack on Syrian civilians.

How this question is answered could either defuse a dangerous potential for a military confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean, or it could lead the world into a war from which it may never truly recover.

The flood of intelligence and open source information about Syria is astonishing, but leaves even the serious analyst with more questions than answers. The situation is extremely complex and the reality on the ground is chaotic at best. The following analysis comes from a great deal of raw data from both open-source and proprietary intelligence resources. The results are contradictory, and the jury is still out on some of the issues. For clarity, the analysis is divided into five topics, presented as questions:

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Question #1: Who is the Opposition?

The press and the politicians keep referring to the so-called “opposition”, as though it were a single, cohesive group. In fact, the “opposition” is a fragmented collection of hundreds of diverse groups with widely differing agendas. The only thing that they all have in common is their hatred of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and their desire to topple his regime.

Both the Pentagon and MI6 estimate that there may be as many as 1200 “opposition” groups active in Syria today.  Some of them are allied with al Qaeda, some with the Muslim Brotherhood, and many of the fighters are jihadis associated with smaller groups, who have filtered into Syria from Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and other Arab countries throughout the Middle East.

One source, reporting from Syria, has given the following rough estimates of membership in some of the leading opposition groups:

The Free Syrian Army    Complicating an already confusing environment, there are two different groups claiming to be the “Free Syrian Army”.

The first, led by Col Riad El Assa’ad (which our source calls the True FSA ) has some 100,000 troops, largely defectors from the Syrian army. They have received no support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the Western allies, and are poorly equipped. They say they are fighting for a free, democratic Syria, and they have put out appeals for international support, which have remained unanswered. Col Riad has no heavy weapons, but only small arms and a limited supply of ammunition. He also lacks medical supplies and any type of logistical support.

The second group claiming to be the “Free Syrian Army” flies the banner of the Supreme Military Council, a coalition of nearly thirty different rebel groups formed under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in December 2012. Led by Major Gen Salim Idris, they are reported to have 45,000 – 50,000 members. They have been designated a “moderate” organization by the US and embraced by Sen. John McCain, who met with him during his recent visit to Syria.

Idris is supported by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Washington-based not-for-profit, run by Executive Director Mouaz Moustafa, a Syrian American. Before he organized the SETF, Moustafa was the Executive Director of the Libyan Council of North America, which like the SETF existed to help push regime change. Before that, he worked with Muslim Brotherhood rebels in Egypt, and denounced the overthrow of Morsi on his Twitter feed. McCain’s trip was arranged by the SETF, whose Political Director, according to their website, is Elizabeth O’Bagy.

O’Bagy, who was just fired from her position at the Institute for falsely claiming to have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University, has worked closely with opposition and rebel commanders in Syria, particularly with Idris and his group. Both Kerry and McCain have relied on O’Bagy’s assessments on Syria, as they push their agenda for a strike on Syria. O’Bagy even accompanied McCain on his trip to Syria. While she claims not to be working directly for the SETF, her photo is on the organization’s “About Us” page on their website, with the title, Political Director.

Her aggressive advocacy on behalf of Idris’ organization have considerably muddied the waters for US policy makers as they try to sort out the different groups in the Syrian opposition. Despite her efforts to paint Idris with a broad, friendly brush, multiple intelligence sources report that Idris’”Free Syrian Army” is heavily infiltrated by al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to several sources, Idris plays a duplicitous role, courting the West, particularly people like US Senator John McCain, while secretly funneling the weapons he receives from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the al Qaeda-linked al Nusrah. Weapons have turned up in the hands of al Nusrah fighters at the Turkish border that have been traced back to Idris, who uses another group, as a discrete cut out. Not surprisingly, Idris is reported to be closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. Despite this proven connection with al Nusrah, Idris is very active soliciting aid from Western nations, and the response has been positive. UPDATE:  Latest reports (9/20/2013): The FSA has officially aligned itself with Al Nusrah, the most prominent al-Qaeda linked rebel group (see below).

The Al Nusrah Front (Jabhat al Nusrah) is considered to be the most powerful, the fiercest, and best organized of the rebel groups, although it is not large in size. Estimates suggest that al Nusrah has some 15,000 fighters. An affiliate of al Qaeda, al Nusrah has kept a very high profile throughout the Syrian conflict. They have been responsible for many of the atrocities that have horrified the world, including many that have been attributed to Assad.

In December 2012, the US declared al Nusrah a terrorist organization and refused to allow them into the Syrian National Coalition. The leader of the coalition objected to that move, giving some insight into how complex the situation in Syria really is, and giving credence to the old expression, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

In addition to these three groups, there are hundreds of other, less well known and smaller groups fighting in Syria today, approximately 15,000 Muslim Brotherhood members, operating under the banner of the Islamic Front. The number of “opposition” fighters in Syria today can only be guessed, but include such groups as the Syrian Islamic Front, the Syrian Liberation Army, the Syrian Liberation Front, and the Syrian Revolution General Commission, among many others.

Question 2:  Who actually carried out the gas attack?  After two years of seeming indifference to the crisis in Syria, President Obama suddenly began pushing hard for an attack on Assad, based on inconclusive intelligence that holds Assad responsible for the gas attack on August 21. The President then called for a controversial plan that he calls a “limited, proportional strike”, and positioned a naval task force off the Syrian coast, prepared to strike if the order is given.

The United States, Britain, France, and Germany each produced a brief intelligence summary supporting the position that Assad’s government launched the gas attack. However, none of the reports could say with absolute certainty that the information upon which they based their conclusions was accurate.

Russia also released a report in which it concluded the opposite: that the attack was launched by the so-called “opposition”.  The Russian report, although documented with what they claim is scientific evidence, is also suspect, since Russia is a strong supporter of the Assad government.

Even the UN report, which was released on Monday, September 16, was inconclusive and deeply disappointing to those who are seeking the truth. The stunning report shows that the committee tasked to test and evaluated the gas that was used in the Ghouta region has apparently been unable to draw any substantive conclusions from their findings. In fact the conclusions of the investigating team were limited to two findings: that in the course of their investigations several “impacted and exploded surface-to-surface rockets capable to carry a chemical payload were found to contain Sarin” and that “over 50 interviews given by survivors and healthcare workers provided ample corroboration of the medical and scientific results.”

These conclusions, while proving that Sarin gas was indeed used in the August 21 attack, gave no further proof or even indications of who was responsible for this deadly breach of international law. The argument used by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, White House Spokesman Jay Carney, and others has been that the rebels have no capacity for launching such a weapon and that the extent of the deaths and injuries indicated that only the Assad government could have launched them. The facts say otherwise.

Sarin can be lethal, even at very low concentrations, with death following within one minute after direct ingestion due to suffocation from lung muscle paralysis. It kills by paralyzing lung muscles. Even at very low concentrations, sarin can be fatal. In non-lethal doses, permanent neurological damage may result if antidotes are not quickly administered. The number of deaths from the attack, depending on the reporting source, ranged from 322 to 1,729. According to some experts, Sarin gas is relatively easy to manufacture, and more difficult to deploy.

Syrian Jihadist Rebels ChemWarThe photograph (right) shows a rebel group in Syria preparing to launch just such a rocket, albeit a primitive one, and the warhead pictured in the photograph is similar to that described by UN investigators. The importance of the photograph is only to establish that there are rebel groups in Syria which have the capability to launch such a weapon. Moreover, a team of al Nusrah fighters was caught at the Turkish border earlier this year in possession of two kilograms of Sarin gas, Al Nushrah has, in fact, taken credit for the attack.

At least two stories have been circulating and remain unconfirmed. Information from separate sources, one French, the other Jordanian, reported that Al Nusrah carried out the attack with Turkish support, utilizing rockets and Sarin gas which they took from two Syrian bases which they had overrun.

Another source, however, said that the rebels had been losing ground and were preparing a gas attack when a so-called “work accident” occurred and the agent was released prematurely. The father of a fighter claimed that while smuggling the gas through tunnels, it accidentally exploded, suffocating those in the tunnel and releasing the gas.

Clearly, the answer to the question “Who launched the attack?” is far from certain, and the information so far acquired is hardly sufficient justification for launching a military attack against Assad. This is not to say that Assad’s forces were not responsible for the attack. It simply points out that there is not enough proof, one way or another to attribute blame to either side.

Issue #3:  Facilities in Syria:  Since the early 1980s, Syria has made extensive efforts to acquire and maintain an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. According to reports, they achieved a high level of sophistication in weaponizing both. Since becoming a patron of Syria, Iran has participated in the development of methods of deployment.

The Iranians are reported to have four research facilities, and two or three pilot plants for the design and manufacturing of prototype warheads. These plants are located in the coastal Mountain Range.

There is also a small nuclear reactor located near Damascus that contains highly enriched uranium.  According to the nuclear specialists we consulted, if the reactor were hit, accidentally or on purpose, by a missile, it could produce a blast in the 75-150 kiloton range (Hiroshima was a 13-kiloton explosion). This points to the possibility that the Syrian situation could suddenly escalate into a nuclear war, and it could happen by accident.

Issue #4:  Growing Concentration of Foreign Naval Assets in the Eastern Mediterranean

The US presence in the eastern Mediterranean includes four Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers, and two submarines, as well as other naval assets. In addition, the Nimitz Carrier Battle Group and the Truman Carrier Battle Group are standing by to assist, should that become necessary.

The Russians have also expanded their presence in the eastern Mediterranean with a two heavily armed Russian Naval Squadrons which includes destroyers, tank landing ships, and three submarines.

In addition, a Chinese Squadron is also in the vicinity. Their mission seems to be to observe, rather than to participate.

5. What are the Possible Consequences of a US attack on Syria?: It seems that should the US undertake to strike Syria, it is likely to be a larger attack than the President has told us. A report from a senior military source yesterday says that B-2 and B-52 units have been incorporated into the strike plan, which is now expected to include 2 days of heavy bombardment, a far cry from what John Kerry called “an incredibly small” military action. While not, strictly speaking, putting any boots on the ground, it does represent an escalation from what was originally presented to Congress and the American people.

Should the US attack Syria, any of the following could happen:

  • Hezbollah, a client of Syria, has promised to attack Israel, as has Iran. Hezbollah currently plans to launch the attacks from Syria, not from Lebanon, and has amassed forces near the Israeli border.
  • If that attack is strong and threatens Israel’s populated areas, Israel will have to respond. That response will have teeth and is likely to do a lot of very serious damage.
  • To which other Muslim countries are likely respond, like dogs to a dog-fight.
  • The proliferation of military involvement could easily draw in Western nations with strategic interests in the region, and the fighting could easily expand to include Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
  • Terrorist groups around the world would be encouraged to launch local attacks against Western, and particularly US and Israeli interests

The Putin initiative, to put Syrian WMD under international control, originally looked like it might defuse a very dangerous situation, but relations between Washington and Moscow have become increasingly tense since the proposal was offered. The US refused to give Syria 30 days to provide the inventory, and also refused to pledge not to attack Syria.

In the mean time, reports have been received from Syria that Assad’s forces has already been busy moving at least some of his stock of chemical weapons to the Beka Valley in Lebanon.

And opposition rebel groups in Syria rejected the Russian proposal for placing the Syrian regime’s chemical arms under international control, and called again for regime officials to be brought to justice. The situation is, not unexpectedly, becoming increasingly complicated and difficult – diplomatically, politically, and militarily. The outcome is anything but certain.

Conclusion:  As the Obama administration continued to press for a strike on Assad, the region tottered at the brink of another war. It is a war no one will win, and the unintended consequences, that may carry it far beyond the borders of Syria, will be impossible to control.

The intervention of Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the 11th hour brought the world back from what might have been the most devastating war the region has ever seen. While the American President has pulled back from the brink, waiting for a resolution of the demand that Syria turn over its chemical weapons to an international body, the administration has made it clear that all options are still on the table if this does not happen. The world has temporarily turned its attention away from the region to look after other issues. But the threat of war remains in what is arguably the most volatile and dangerous region in the world.

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Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst in the private sector. She can be reached at ilana@gerarddirect.com

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