The Big Gap
Mark Hosenball has a new piece up about the evidence for Assad ordering the sarin attacks:
With the United States threatening to attack Syria, U.S. and allied intelligence services are still trying to work out who ordered the poison gas attack on rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus.
No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some U.S. sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.
While U.S. officials say Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons strike even if he did not directly order it, they have not been able to fully describe a chain of command for the August 21 attack in the Ghouta area east of the Syrian capital.
It is one of the biggest gaps in U.S. understanding of the incident, even as Congress debates whether to launch limited strikes on Assad's forces in retaliation.
After wrongly claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the U.S. intelligence community, along with the Obama administration, are trying to build as solid a case as they can about what it says was a sarin nerve gas attack that killed over 1,400 people.
The Syrian government, backed by Russia, blames Sunni rebels for the gas attack. Russia says Washington has not provided convincing proof that Assad's troops carried out the attack and called it a "provocation" by rebel forces hoping to encourage a military response by the United States.
Identifying Syrian commanders or leaders as those who gave an order to fire rockets into the Sunni Muslim areas could help Obama convince a war-weary American public and skeptical members of Congress to back limited strikes against Assad.
But penetrating the secretive Syrian government is tough, especially as it fights a chaotic civil war for its survival.
"Decision-making at high levels within foreign governments is always a difficult intelligence target. Typically small numbers of people are involved, operational security is high, and penetration - through either human or technical means - is hard," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA expert on the Middle East.
I certainly have no problem believing that Assad could have ordered it. He's a real piece of work. But because the motive for him blatantly crossing the "red line" and inviting international intervention is so obscure, the lack of public evidence of his ordering it is a bit suspicious.
As I wrote earlier, I think the Snowden revelations perversely give cover to sources and methods. It's completely believable that the US has penetrated their communications at this point. So the fact that the US is unwilling to share the information lends itself to the suspicion, at least, that they don't have proof. And after Iraq, that's a problem.
It may very well be that they don't have the intelligence capability to know for sure that Assad ordered the attacks. But if that's the case, they are foolish to say they know he did. After all, if he didn't do it Assad has been alerted to the fact that Big Brother hasn't penetrated his communications. That doesn't sound too smart to me.