U.S. Knew Syrians Were Preparing for Chemical-Weapons Attack

Senior administration officials say the U.S. has forestalled these attacks in the last year.

A young victim of an attack on Ghouta, Syria recuperating in a hospital. (National Journal)

The Obama administration had advanced warning of possible chemical attacks by the Assad regime in the last year but was able to forestall such an outcome through diplomatic efforts.

That's according to senior administration officials on Friday, speaking to reporters after the U.S. released evidence of a chemical-weapons attack last week in the Damascus suburbs. One official said when an attack was imminent, the U.S. deployed either direct messaging to the Assad regime or conducted public diplomacy, which included speeches from President Obama.

"At various junctures over the last year, when we saw particularly concerning things, we were able to demarche diplomatically a variety of different countries so that the Syrian government would get the message that the use of chemical weapons violated a fundamental international norm," the senior administration official said. "That includes, by the way, direct messaging to the Syrian government as well."

But this opens up questions about the latest attack. In its paper presenting evidence that the Assad regime was in fact responsible for the attack, the administration cited information outlining the different preparations that went into the alleged attack.

From the administration's paper:

We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel — including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC — were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.

Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of 'Adra from Sunday, August 18, until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks. Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons.

So, how much advanced notice the U.S. had before the gas attack in the Damascus suburbs? And would the U.S. have been able to act in time to stop it?

Asked about what the U.S. did to stop that specific response, the official said their intelligence gathering is not always consistent and timely.

"Timelines for all of our streams of intelligence are different," a separate senior administration official said. "And so, in some cases we can and do get something close to real time. And other times, because of the nature of the access or the procedure or the process, there is some built-in delay. And, again, I don't want to add more here what's on our capability side, but just to say that we feel confident that we can in fact identify that those preparations occurred, that they were under the regime control, and thus implemented from above."

Thus, if the Assad regime were to launch another chemical-weapons attack, could the U.S. act in enough time to stop it? Or what about a nuclear attack from Iran or North Korea? For now, as the official said, it's unclear what sort of advanced notice the administration has with these attacks.

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