September 03, 2013

We Need Hard Confirmation on Syrian CW, Not Just "High Confidence"

Since the rigmarole passing for Syria policy described here, there have been two notable events: 1) John Kerry’s recent comments at the State Department effectively making the case for war against the regime in Damascus (or at least punitive action); and 2) President Obama’s stunning act of political jujitsu belatedly introducing the legislative branch into the late summer Washington pièce de théâtre. Neither development portends well or particularly ameliorates the overall conundrum presented by our flailing Syria policy. I will focus on “1” here, and hopefully turn to “2” shortly. Kerry’s remarks had as rhetorical showpiece a spirited refrain of what “we know” regarding Syrian alleged chemical weapons (“CW”) use. Delivered in a stirring--if overly forced--falsetto, the former Assistant District Attorney of Massachusetts presented the bill of particulars as if mounting a closing argument to a rapt jury box in the environs of Beacon Hill. But the stakes, stage and substantiation needed here are exponentially higher. And behind the spectacle of a bespoke suit, St. Paul’s baritone, ample Boston Brahmin chin, and silver-haired mane, Kerry’s comments ultimately rang hollow. As with Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, he ‘doth protest too much, methinks’.

In a relatively short statement, the Secretary of State managed to use the word “know” some nearly two-score times. Yet we really know with certainty far less than was portrayed with such assurance. After the grotesque failed WMD intelligence debacle of Iraq—a dismal stain on the United States--we have zero margin for error with respect to attenuated conjecture or trumped-up circumstantial “evidence.” Nor even does “high confidence” suffice. Indeed, before embarking on another Middle Eastern adventure (other merits of the proposed intervention apart), we must demand hard evidence--amply aired to the public--at very minimum established beyond a reasonable doubt and optimally wholly air-tight. This is not only to ensure we have proven culpability around the brutish crime of Ghouta, but also equally if not more important, to begin the hard work of restoring our credibility on such matters in the international arena. Put simply, a restoration of credibility demands conclusive proof; this means confirmation, full stop.

The following items gave pause in Kerry’s statement:

1) Kerry spoke of “thousands of sources”. This is hyperbolic, as it reflects myriad social media sources. To state the obvious, not all social media is created equal, especially when establishing culpability around war crimes, as opposed to deciding whom to ‘favorite’, ‘face-time’, or ‘friend’;

2) Kerry spoke of a “verdict reached by our intelligence community”, there was no such thing, there was a determination of “high confidence” regarding an intelligence assessment; this is no “verdict”, but rather, a finding;

3) While sympathetic to a degree regarding protecting intelligence sources, Kerry’s comment that “some things we do know we can't talk about publicly” leaves me underwhelmed, notably given the disgraceful Iraq back-drop, unless our global commons is to be relegated to so many supine sheep, we must and deserve more and better by way of publically disclosed information;

4) Kerry then pivoted to asking: “so what do we really know that we can talk about?”, which ended up being rather a lengthy recitation of circumstantial fare: A) that the Assad regime has the largest CW stockpile in MENA; B) that the regime used them previously this year on smaller scale and near the site of the Ghouta event; C) that the regime was “specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition” and “was frustrated that it hadn't succeeded in doing so”; D) that for three days before the alleged regime attack” Syrian forces were “on the ground in the area making preparations”, and E) that Syrian regime “elements” before the attack were warned to don gas masks and take “precautions associated with chemical weapons.” This is all quite interesting background fare, but none of it—none of it—conclusively proves the regime ordered this atrocity (please know I say that as someone who firmly believes the Assad regime was behind this odious attack, and if we had a competent team and policy in place--which we manifestly do not--should be made to pay the consequences dearly); and

5) Only after this lengthy preamble, Kerry began to move into more interesting terrain, finally getting to the meat (read: evidentiary crux) of the matter. He said the following: “We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.” But reading the intelligence assessment does not provide the detail on the “specific instructions”, and speaks only of “satellite detections” regarding the rockets provenance. Here again, we need more, and it must be made public, even if in carefully redacted form. Or will we be content only to have Congressional lickspittles, our soi disant “representatives”, give a ministerial ‘all-clear’ on the intelligence, much as they were asleep at the switch on Iraq, or more recently, the egregious NSA over-reaching (at least until they were shamed by Edward Snowden’s revelations to awaken from their insouciant slumber)?

After laying this mostly rhetorical groundwork, Kerry went on to say what we all know, that “all hell broke loose in the social media” after the attacks. Indeed, it did, and yet, we require conclusive proof of the origins of the attack, beyond horrific footage of the grisly aftermath. After all, this speaks only to something horrible having happened, as did reports by respected NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but it does not firmly evidence regime culpability. Similarly, sarin samples obtained from first responders proves the existence of said neurotoxic agent on the scene, but not necessarily who delivered it, precisely how, and exactly where.

There are other issues besides, when analyzing the balance of Kerry’s comments. As this McClatchy reporting details, there are pretty wildly differing fatality counts making the rounds, whether the ones trumpeted by the United States, or far lower ones: France (281 fatalities confirmed), the United Kingdom (“at least 350 fatalities”), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights figures (approximately 500, so that they are reportedly requesting the names of others in the US Government's tally to reconcile an apparently 1,000 strong delta), etc. Regardless, as CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman stated, it does appear Kerry was “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” (1429!), again, this presents deleterious and predictable spill-over implications to our credibility (Cordesman has more well worth reading here, incidentally).

Nor does it help that Kerry has also—before the U.N. investigation is even released—effectively pooh-poohed it in advance, decreeing: “when the UN inspectors finally gained access, that access, as we now know, was restricted and controlled.” Are we concerned about what the United Nations’ investigative team’s findings will be? I mean, what is it with our seeming concern around prejudging same? As for his statement: “(w)e know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered”, while intriguing, the international community will be forgiven wanting to hear more concrete details regarding same (I suspect, rank speculation of course, that this is an Israeli intelligence intercept we are being told by Tel Aviv must be kept under wraps). Additionally, while noteworthy that the Syrian regime reportedly shelled the affected areas “at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days” (it is suggested in part to destroy evidence), this is more circumstantial fare than some resounding evidentiary capstone to Kerry’s “case.” Finally, and certainly worth noting too, some outside experts are unwilling to make definitive conclusions regarding CW usage by the regime, such as this impressively researched view.

Let me be abundantly clear: I believe the Assad regime is despicable in the extreme and that they indeed knowingly ordered the use of CW in Ghouta up and down the chain of command. I think the regime was feeling increasingly emboldened given Obama’s reticence in not enforcing the ‘red-line’ previously, given too the lack of tangible follow-through on arming the opposition, and lest we forget, the amazing spectacle of fecklessness with respect to Sisi’s massacres of approximately 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (still courtesy of our tax dollars, as we can’t even summon a suspension of aid in the face of a bald-faced coup in keeping with U.S. law; perhaps bulldozed, bloody corpses seems less galling than ones without any marks and scratches, niceties of ‘norms’ apart?).

But we have no choice but to reckon that we labor under the legacy of the terrible blunder that was the ginned-up intelligence that caused trillions of dollars wasted, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American ones, the epic disgraces of Abu Ghraib, and such grievous harm dealt the United States' global repute. We must recall all this was premised on lies. So, like it or not, evidentiary hurdles moving forward must be higher. This is critical to better bolster regional and global credibility, alliance dynamics, and more. Rapidly cobbled together 'quick and dirty' presentations to allow the Tomahawks be launched post-haste simply do not suffice. Indeed, before embarking on an adventure to Iraq’s legacy Baathist neighbor to the immediate West, particularly based on intelligence assessments again, it is incumbent to have, and forgive the phrase, a slam-dunk case, although let us please call it something else: conclusive proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or if you prefer, firm confirmation.

Mr. Kerry is of course an impressive personage on the American political scene of long-standing, and a talented diplomat as already evidenced by his resuscitation of the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he did not deliver such a case. Quite the contrary, his presentation begged more questions than it answered. We must demand more and better information. Our times—and recent debacles--require this. The stakes are too high for atmospheric speeches and Sunday green-room ministrations to carry the day. Else we have learned nothing.

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Posted by Gregory at September 3, 2013 02:28 AM | TrackBack (0)

And then on Mon Kerry states this is a "Munich Moment'. It is too silly...beyond words. People want to take the elite serious in nation? Go me what it more resembles is a Paris Moment....i.e. the collapse of the Third Republic. Feckless and reactionary leadership-perhaps Blum excluded--in all corners and by all Parties.

Posted by: jonst at September 3, 2013 10:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, do you give any credence to the reporting in France that the U.S. intensified covert activities in Syria last month? The cynical part of my brain leads me to suspect that the Administration has been seeking to sucker Assad into more atrocities, so as to provide a casus belli.

Mind you, I have no objection per se to the United States suckering a murderous despot into providing a casus belli, as long as the Administration holding power can A.) provide insight as to how removing the murderous despot is likely to provide more benefit than cost to the citizens of the United States, and B) provide some explanation, as to why the victims of the murderous despot will obtain more benefit than cost, by the United States being involved in the internal affairs of the country being tyrannized by the murderous despot. Perhaps President Obama can squeeze that into his schedule this week, and not fatuously raise, unlike his Secretary of State, the specter of Munich, Hitler, or Nazis, in the context of a thug killing people in Syria.

Posted by: Will Allen at September 3, 2013 11:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In case you missed it:

Very clear and nicely written for a general audience. Few impenetrable acronyms. Reminds me of Andre Gunder Frank in his use of popular media quotes and references (rather than "expert" analysis) to support his points. Ergo, sure to be dismissed by the VSPs, as was AGF.

Worth reading.

"Mr. Kerry is of course an impressive personage on the American political scene of long-standing, and a talented diplomat..." This is becoming a difficult case to make, unless you add " the mold (intended) of Colin Powell..." Especially so after arch descriptions as, "...behind the spectacle of a bespoke suit, St. Paul’s baritone, ample Boston Brahmin chin, and silver-haired mane...," Almost begs "empty" before "suit."

Still hoping for rational, fact-based debate on this intervention, the John & Lindsey show notwithstanding. Coherent FP now beyond the pale. There's something rotten in Denmark.

Posted by: Adams at September 3, 2013 11:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Watching the hearings now....this is genuinely pathetic. Simplistic sloganeering, half truths, irrelevant appeals to emotion, and out right lies....brain dead and/or lying types. There is not serious questioning going on.

Posted by: jonst at September 3, 2013 04:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What sort of evidence, exactly, would be sufficient in this case?

I ask, because I've never once seen anyone who took the "we need more evidence to be convinced" position lay out what sort of evidence they would find compelling.

And suppose producing that sort of evidence sounds like an impossibility. It probably doesn't exist. What then?

Posted by: MikeDC at September 9, 2013 04:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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