Saturday, August 31, 2013

Back from the Brink, Finally / AP

Obama finally "got it" that his red line and his hawkish posturing left him standing on the brink, alone.  Hollande might jump off the cliff with him, but then again, he might not.  US Ambassadors had fanned out to foreign capitals, but were being rebuffed -- no one wanted to join a coalition of hubris.  After all, convincing evidence of exactly what happened on August 21, and who is truly responsible, has yet to surface. From the Globe and AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Short on support at home and allies abroad, President Barack Obama unexpectedly stepped back from a missile attack against Syria on Saturday and instead asked Congress to support a strike punishing Bashar Assad’s regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons...
Administration officials said Obama appeared set on ordering a strike until Friday evening. After a long walk in near 90-degree temperatures around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the president told his aide he had changed his mind.
These officials said Obama initially drew pushback in a two-hour session attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Klapper, CIA Director John Brennan, national security adviser Susan Rice and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. They declined to say which of the participants had argued against Obama’s proposal.
Whatever Congress ultimately decides, the developments marked a stunning turn.
France is Obama’s only major foreign ally to date for a strike, public polling shows support is lukewarm in the United States, and dozens of lawmakers in both parties have signed a letter urging Obama not to act without their backing. Outside the gates of the White House, the chants of protesters could be heard as the president stepped to a podium set up in the Rose Garden.
Had he gone ahead with a military strike, Obama would have become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without mustering broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans. Not since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, has the U.S. been so alone in pursuing major lethal military action beyond a few attacks responding to strikes or threats against its citizens.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Thin: The US Gov't Intelligence Report on Syria's CW / NY Times

Here is the report and it says very little.

The report makes the case that a CW attack occurred.  I think by now everyone agrees it occurred.  The issue of import, however, is who did it, not whether it happened.

The report also tells us, as if we didn't already know, that Assad has chemical weapons and delivery systems that could have been used.  And, he has done it before!  Well, okay, but did he do it THIS time?  That is the real question.

The intelligence dances around the issues.  For example, the report language seems more lawyerly than anything else:
"We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely," and "We have seen no indication that the opposition has carried out a large-scale, coordinated rocket and artillery attack like the one that occurred on August 21."  And another one:  "We continue to judge that the Syrian regime views chemical weapons as one of many tools in its arsenal..."
The report says it has satellite images of rockets being launched from regime-controlled sites--but fails to produce any images.  It claims to have intercepted communications confirming use by the regime, but releases no transcript.  Revealing satellite images and communications intercepts would not expose any hidden sources or methods, although this was the reason given by Secretary of State Kerry (and by this report) for hiding intelligence details.

Being familiar with the quality of evidence brought forward in other CW and BW investigations, I can only say that the quality of what was revealed today is pathetic.  How to describe it?

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.


WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is poised to become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without mustering broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans.
Not since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, has the U.S. been so alone in pursing major lethal military action beyond a few attacks responding to strikes or threats against its citizens...
CBS News:
WASHINGTON - The White House has provided a series of briefings for key lawmakers over the past 24 hours, trying to combat complaints that Congress is not being consulted on a potential U.S. strike in Syria. Still, many members want more: They want any military action to be put to a vote first.But their own schedule makes that unlikely. Congress has been gone for a month and doesn't return to Washington for a week and a half.
That didn't stop more than 160 House members - Democrats and Republicans - from signing letters this week urging the president to "receive authorization from Congress" before striking Syria... 

I JUST MOVED--New email address, phone, and other contact info

Meryl Nass, MD
45 Beals Ave.
Ellsworth, Maine 04605

(H) 207 412-0004
(C) 207 522-5229


Who Used and Controls Chemical Weapons? Not a Slam Dunk / AP and Toronto Star

From the Associated Press/ Toronto Star:
WASHINGTON— The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no “slam dunk,” with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say...
Administration officials said Wednesday that neither the UN Security Council, which is deciding whether to weigh in, nor allies’ concerns would affect their plans. But the complicated intelligence picture raises questions about the White House’s full-steam-ahead approach to the Aug. 21 attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb, with worries that the attack could be tied to Al-Qaeda-backed rebels later.
Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad’s supplies of chemical weapons, and Assad could have moved them in recent days as the U.S. rhetoric increased. But that lack of certainty means a possible series of U.S. cruise missile strikes aimed at crippling Assad’s military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly chemical attack.
Over the past six months, with shifting front lines in the 2½-year-old civil war and sketchy satellite and human intelligence coming out of Syria, U.S. and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies, according to the two intelligence officials and two other U.S. officials.
U.S. satellites have captured images of Syrian troops moving trucks into weapons storage areas and removing materials, but U.S. analysts have not been able to track what was moved or, in some cases, where it was relocated. They are also not certain that when they saw what looked like Assad’s forces moving chemical supplies, those forces were able to remove everything before rebels took over an area where weapons had been stored.
In addition, an intercept of Syrian military officials discussing the strike was among low-level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack back to an Assad insider or even a senior Syrian commander, the officials said.
So while Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it was “undeniable,” a chemical weapons attack had occurred, and that it was carried out by the Syrian military, U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. That suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report, according to the official who described the report.

Shouldn't Congress be Consulted?/ Military Officers/ Francoise Hollande/ Angela Merkel

NBC News queried 700 adults on Aug 28-29, 2013.   The most interesting answer I found to be the following:

Q12  Do you think that President Obama should or should not be required to receive approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria?

Should be required to receive approval ................... 79

Should not be required to receive approval ............. 16
Depends (VOL) ........................................................ 1
Not sure .................................................................... 4

A WaPo editorial agreed, titled:  

The Post’s View:  President Obama should consult Congress before striking Syria

The media have been finding quotes from Senator and Candidate Obama, and Senator Biden, in which both contradicted the current Presidential stance: 

As a senator and presidential candidate in 2007, Mr. Obama said, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent."
Biden, also a senator and presidential candidate in 2007, said he would move to impeach President Bush if he unilaterally attacked Iran because of its nuclear programs.In 1998, Biden said on the Senate floor, "To be sure, the commander in chief ensures that the president has the sole power to direct U.S. military forces in combat. But that power - except in very few limited instances - derives totally from congressional authority."
From the WaPo comes a piece quoting former military officers and current anonymous officers who question the wisdom of a proposed attack:
... The potential consequences of a U.S. strike include a retaliatory attack by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — which supports Assad — on Israel, as well as cyberattacks on U.S. targets and infrastructure, U.S. military officials said.
“What is the political end state we’re trying to achieve?” said a retired senior officer involved in Middle East operational planning who said his concerns are widely shared by active-duty military leaders. “I don’t know what it is. We say it’s not regime change. If it’s punishment, there are other ways to punish.” The former senior officer said that those who are expressing alarm at the risks inherent in the plan “are not being heard other than in a pro-forma manner.”
Francoise Hollande says France is ready, whatever that might mean:  “There are few countries that have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them,” Hollande said, according to Reuters. “We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies.”

UPDATE Sept 7:  After the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, French President Francois Hollande contradicted his foreign minister, saying France too would wait to hear from the UN analysts.

Germany, on the other hand, is facing national elections soon.  German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the Neue Osnabrücker newspaper that Berlin’s participation in a U.S.-led coalition has “neither been asked nor is it being considered by us.”  Guess Angela Merkel isn't ready to put German participation to a vote.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

France too puts on the brakes / WaPo

Finally, those who first jumped on the bandwagon start asking for proof.  From the WaPo:
French officials also are calling for a delay in action until U.N. inspectors conclude their report. “Before acting, we need proof,” said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister and government spokeswoman, according to Bloomberg News.
The latest developments suggest that Washington’s allies will insist on waiting at least until next week before launching what initially appeared to be an imminent strike on Syria...
British officials on Thursday released an intelligence assessment on the alleged chemical attack and a document outlining the legal justification for a robust response.
The three-page intelligence report offered various degrees of certainty about the Assad government’s culpability for the Aug. 21 attack. It said “there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.” But it also categorized the government’s involvement in the alleged attacks as “highly likely,” rather than definite, adding that it is not clear what would have motivated Assad and his deputies to carry out “an attack of this scale at this time.”
Skepticism in Britain and elsewhere is dashing U.S. hopes of quickly securing a broad international coalition.
UPDATE from Agence France Presse:
While other US allies, including France, have called for action on Syria, it appears unlikely they would join US military action absent a UN Security Council mandate, which has no chance of evading a Russian veto. 
Meanwhile, Mint Press News presents interviews suggesting chemical weapons were transferred by Saudi officials to rebels in Ghouta.  This is by no means smoking gun evidence, but is another possible scenario:
However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.
“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.
Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”
Ghouta townspeople said the rebels were using mosques and private houses to sleep while storing their weapons in tunnels.
Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the chemical weapons attack. That same day, the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaida, announced that it would similarly attack civilians in the Assad regime’s heartland of Latakia on Syria’s western coast, in purported retaliation.
“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”
“When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them,” she warned. She, like other Syrians, do not want to use their full names for fear of retribution.
A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named ‘J’ agreed. “Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.
“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” ‘J’ said...

Cameron: "I get that and the government will act accordingly" (No UK intervention) / Guardian

Yesterday's top fun quote, from Conservative Member of Parliament Adam Holloway:
Friends stop their friends getting into their cars at the end of an evening and driving away drunk:  I think it is one job of a British Prime Minister to stop American Presidents driving drunk, as George W Bush did (in my opinion) with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unless I am missing something, I think David Cameron should be doing the same with President Obama now. The fact that we hear that Tony Blair thinks intervening in Syria a good idea ought to mean that all sensible people run in the opposite direction.  
The Express says that 80% of the UK public is against armed intervention; 12% are undecided and only 8% agreed with the Prime Minister.  

The House of Commons (unexpectedly) had its way with David Cameron today. From tonight's Guardian:
David Cameron indicated on Thursday evening that Britain would not take part in military action against Syria after the British government lost a crucial vote on an already watered-down amendment that was designed to pave the way to intervention in the war-torn country.
In a devastating blow to his authority, the prime minister lost a government motion by 272 votes to 285 – an opposition majority of 13 – after scores of Tory MPs voted with Labour...
Furthermore, as the BBC explains:
in an unexpected turn of events - MPs also rejected the government's motion in support of military action in Syria [even] if it was supported by evidence from United Nations weapons inspectors, who are investigating claims President Bashar al-Assad's regime had used chemical weapons against civilians.
By rejecting a UK strike whether or not better evidence of Assad's role emerged, Parliament seems to be expressing its distrust of government claims and doctored evidence.  No doubt Colin Powell's 2003 claims of WMD evidence cast a long shadow.  Heaping salt on the wound, Cameron was then asked to guarantee to Parliament he would abide by the vote of Parliament and not take things into his own hands:
Asked by Labour leader Ed Miliband for an assurance that he would not use the royal prerogative to sanction British involvement in the military action, the prime minister told MPs: "I can give that assurance. Let me say, the House has not voted for either motion tonight. I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.
"It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.
"I get that and the government will act accordingly."
The article goes on:
The shock result means that Cameron becomes the first British prime minister in decades unable to deliver British troops to a joint military operation with the US. Whitehall sources had said Barack Obama was willing to show some patience for Britain but he would need to launch strikes against Syria before he leaves for the G20 summit in Russia next Tuesday. The New York Times reported on Thursday night that Obama is preparing to act alone at the weekend.
Britain failed to present persuasive evidence that the Assad regime was the perpetrator of the attack:
Opening the debate in a packed Commons, the prime minister ...acknowledged that the intelligence agencies had not delivered a definitive verdict.
Philippe Sands, a leading expert in international law, said the document failed to provide a "sound or persuasive legal argument" in favour of military action...
Miliband said the prime minister had failed to prove definitively that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack as he intensified the pressure on Cameron by pressing an alternative Labour amendment to a vote...
UPDATE:  NY Times emphasizes British scepticism toward American moralism:
In the British Parliament on Thursday, the theme of doubt was foremost.
Paul Flynn, of Labour, said that prior uses of chemical weapons, as against the Kurds, had not drawn such a response.
“Is not the real reason we are here today not the horror at these weapons — if that horror exists — but as a result of the American president having foolishly drawn a red line, so that he is now in the position of either having to attack or face humiliation?” he asked...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

CBW attacks in Syria and elsewhere: Proving Who Did It Is the Hardest Part

Identifying an attack with a nerve agent (organophosphate) is not at all difficult.  The symptoms are characteristic:  pinpoint pupils, increased secretions from all orifices, suffocation.  They are the same symptoms experienced by agricultural workers accidentally sprayed with organophosphate insecticides. (I treated one such case 30 years ago.)

This is said to be the poison in the school lunch that killed children in India last month. Blood levels of cholinesterase are markedly reduced, and increase as those affected recover.  Dead bodies have no signs of physical trauma. Autopsies of dead bodies or blood tests from the living provide the answer.

Recovery is often incomplete, however.

There are several reasons a perpetrator may choose to use chemical or biological weapons, not least of which is the difficulty identifying who used it.  Unlike a bullet, it does not come from the direction of the enemy.  The cost is relatively low, there are many methods for dissemination, and use of a weapon of mass destruction gets peoples' attention.  These features can make it an ideal weapon to use when your goal is to implicate--loudly--an innocent party.

Nerve agents were first developed by Germany before and during World War II.  They are in the same chemical class as organophosphate pesticides, so their method of manufacture is well known, and they can be produced or purchased by nations or by subnational groups.

Examples of use of organophosphate nerve agents include the sarin attack on Tokyo's subways in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo cult; attacks on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and on Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988; and contamination of clothing worn by black rebels during the Rhodesian civil war in the late 1970s. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, experienced a failed assassination attempt by organophosphates in 1989, while visiting the US.

In none of these cases was there initial clarity about who perpetrated the attacks.

How does one get clarity regarding the source of the attack, especially in a situation (like Syria) where more than one actor may have reasons to use the agent or to cast blame on an enemy?

  1. The agents should be identified, and evidence that the putative perpetrator had access to this agent should be sought.
  2. The delivery system (probably missiles in the case of Syria) is more likely to be identifiable in terms of its source than the agent itself.  What type of missile, where built, what markings does it contain? News reports suggest missiles have been identified.
  3. Communications are being monitored by NSA and others.  What is known about orders to use the agent(s)? Noah Shachtman, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests this evidence may be contradictory in the case of Syria.
  4. Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention and is known to have stockpiles of chemical agents at various sites.  Satellite photos and other intelligence may provide information regarding movement and launching of these weapons.
  5. Whoever the perpetrator, they always have a logical motive for using chemical weapons.  In the case of the Assad government, it is difficult to see any rationale for a chemical weapons attack on civilians, given the anticipated US response.  
According to today's NY Times:
...American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the attack, and they tried to lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation. They said it will not contain specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground...
Administration officials said that communications between military commanders intercepted after Wednesday’s attack provided proof that the assault was not the result of a rogue unit acting against orders. It is unclear how much detail about these communications, if any, will be made public...
There is also the issue of international law.  The US has not been attacked.  It has no legal right to unilaterally decide to "punish" Syria for using chemical weapons on its people.  The Chemical Weapons Convention and other United Nations precedents provide the current legally approved regime for dealing with allegations of chemical weapons use.

As today's NY Times also notes,
... Yet with the botched intelligence about Iraq still casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, the White House faces an American public deeply skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict and a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties angry about the prospect of an American president once again going to war without Congressional consultation or approval...
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that whatever evidence the administration put forward would be the American intelligence community’s “most important single document in a decade.”
The Obama administration, Mr. Cordesman said, needs to use intelligence about the attack “as a key way of informing the world, of building up trust in U.S. policy and intelligence statements, and in moving U.S strategic communications from spin to convincing truth.”
The Washington Post says,
...But the Obama administration’s efforts to build a legal case are encountering skepticism from U.N. officials and other experts, including former Republican and Democratic State Department lawyers, who argue that the use of force against the Syrian regime, absent a U.N. Security Council resolution, would be illegal...
And then the final question:  how would US military action actually advance US objectives in the area? Again today's NY Times and (surprisingly) Rep. Boehner cut to the chase:
As the White House now considers direct military action in Syria, something it has resisted for two years, Speaker John A. Boehner wrote a letter on Wednesday to Mr. Obama asking the president to provide a “clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy.” 
The WSJ noted: 
Separately, 116 House lawmakers—98 Republicans and 18 Democrats—signed a letter to Mr. Obama, demanding he seek congressional authorization for a military strike.
The markets knew at 9 am Wednesday EDT that the rush to war had run up against roadblocks.  Silver dropped by 2% before 10 am and gold also fell sharply.  It took the newspapers a few hours longer to figure out that the imminent US offensive strike had been halted.