WASHINGTON – The suspicious attack that killed 26 people in northern Syria last week exposed the difficulty of determining whether the Syrian regime has resorted to using chemical weapons, as well as the lingering uncertainty over how President Barack Obama would respond if what he has called a “red line” is crossed.
Current and former U.S. officials acknowledged that confirming a small-scale chemical weapons attack poses technical challenges that have been compounded by limitations on the ability of U.S. spy agencies to gather reliable intelligence, let alone air or soil samples, inside Syria.
The two factors are why U.S. intelligence analysts are still working to determine whether the attack near Aleppo on March 19 involved the use of chemical compounds. The Syrian regime and rebels have accused each other of unleashing chemical weapons.
The course Obama intends to take if confronted with proof of a chemical attack is equally unclear. The Pentagon has prepared calibrated options, ranging from airstrikes to sending troops to seize weapons sites. But officials said they haven’t taken the advance steps necessary to carry out such orders because planning has been hobbled by concerns about the political backlash to a potential U.S. intervention as well as struggles to coordinate with regional allies.
“If we had to go in tomorrow, I’d say we aren’t ready,” said an Obama administration official involved in preparations for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. “One thing we want to avoid is having one group securing the sites and another group bombing them.”
The level of uncertainty surrounding U.S. contingency planning two years into a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people contrasts with the clarity of Obama’s repeated admonitions to the government of President Bashar Assad.
After initial reports indicated chemical weapons may have been used in the attack near Aleppo last week, Obama said such a step by Assad would be a “game changer.” He said he had instructed his “teams” to “find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed.”
The United States has worked with regional allies to prepare responses if the regime uses its chemical weapons or if events require seizing weapons sites. Some of the largest depots are near Syria’s border with Jordan, and the administration has sent thousands of protective suits and more than 150 military personnel to help train Jordanian special forces teams to secure weapons sites, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
Obama’s rhetoric has seemed aimed at deterring Assad from using chemical weapons while preserving flexibility for the administration in how it intends to respond. But the ambiguity has also exposed Obama to growing criticism of his handling of the crisis in Syria.
Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he is convinced that Syria has already used small quantities of chemical munitions — an accusation that goes beyond what U.S. intelligence officials have said — and called for “action to disrupt their ability to deliver chemical weapons.”
U.S. intelligence officials and weapons experts said emerging information indicates that chemical weapons were not employed. Citing the absence of telltale signs among those being treated, the administration officials said victims appeared “asymptomatic” for chemical weapons exposure.
Outside experts have also voiced skepticism, noting that video footage showed that medical personnel treating victims did not don protective garments or masks. If there had been an attack with sarin or VX gas, believed to be the deadliest agents in Syria’s extensive arsenal, most of the people present would have been fatally or seriously contaminated, said Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert for the European Union. “Fatalities happen literally within minutes or even seconds,” he said. “There’s nothing that suggests that these people were even remotely exposed to nerve agents.”
Tests of nuclear devices send plumes of radiation into the atmosphere that aircraft can detect and analyze. By contrast, chemical munitions such as sarin evaporate quickly, leaving few recoverable traces even within the immediate radius of an attack.
The United Nations plans to send a team into Syria to investigate the Aleppo strike and similar incidents. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon sent a letter to the Syrian government Friday requesting expanded access for U.N. investigators to all sites where chemical weapons are suspected of being used, even in small doses.
But U.S. officials said there is likely to be scant physical evidence by the time experts reach the village where last week’s attack occurred. As a result, experts must rely mainly on reports from witnesses and monitoring the symptoms of those who may have been exposed.
The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have expanded their collection efforts against Syria over the past year. But U.S. officials said that the CIA has not established a presence in the country and that the scope of the conflict has precluded it from distributing sensors that could detect chemical attacks.
Instead, U.S. spy agencies are relying on a combination of satellite imagery, intercepted communications between Syrian officials, and reports from allies, including France, seen as having deeper networks of sources inside the country.
Last year, images helped confirm suspicions that the Syrian military was moving some of its chemical munitions. Intercepts have also led some U.S. officials to conclude that Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons.
“It looks clear that Assad would have used them at least two or three times in the past, had the administration not warned them explicitly,” said a former U.S. official who participated in high-level discussions about Syria. “Most people think it is a matter of time before they actually do.”
Although Obama has implied that the U.S. response to a chemical weapons attack would be harsh, the former official said the options being considered range widely in scale. A chemical attack that causes relatively few casualties might not prompt any U.S. military response.
Internal debates over the level of U.S. retaliation reflect a variety of concerns. There are fears that too meek a response could signal to Assad that he can escalate with impunity. Experts said Assad and his military advisers appear to have proceeded carefully with other weapons, including Scud missiles, limiting their use initially to gauge the reaction of the United States and its allies.
More aggressive options include a plan to destroy Assad’s air force to prevent it from using aerial munitions that form the most deadly portion of the regime’s chemical arsenal. But that would leave large quantities of artillery shells and rockets armed with chemical warheads in the hands of ground troops.
U.S. officials have concluded that it might be possible to destroy much of Assad’s chemical arsenal, but doing so without risking dispersing chemicals that could cause widespread casualties would require using explosives placed and detonated by highly trained operatives at the sites, not airstrikes.
The Jordanians being trained now would probably only be able to secure a portion of the Syria’s arsenal, which is estimated to include hundreds of tons of sarin and other poisons. Capturing and securing the most worrisome facilities would probably require inserting U.S. and other nations’ troops in large enough numbers to fend off Syrian units for extended periods at dozens of sites.
“Just getting in and out could be hairy,” the former U.S. official said.