I’ve been hearing about an analysis from Yossef Bodansky, reportedly alluded to by Rush Limbaugh today, in which Bodansky suggests that U.S.-backed rebels were actually behind the chemical attack in east Damascus on 21 August. (Warning: you may not be able to bring the link up on the first try. The avalanche of clicks from Rush’s listeners seems to have the site hammered at the moment.)
I don’t believe the rebels did this (which doesn’t mean I mistake any of them for the Green Mountain Boys or the Bluecoats at Bunker Hill. It just means I don’t think they conducted this attack). The character of the attack continues to finger the Assad regime, a theme developed by France’s recently released national intelligence estimate. If you don’t have the means to read it in French or run translation software on it, Foreign Policy has a pretty good write-up.
Here are the key points from the French assessment – which, as noted at Foreign Policy, is more detailed and offers more justification than anything the U.S. government has released:
1. The concentration and power of the attack, as evident in its effects on hundreds of victims, indicate it was launched by the regime, which (a) can concentrate the firepower, and (b) has the expertise for the most sophisticated deployment of chemical weapons; i.e., pre-mixed, at the precise point of weapon use.
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2. French intel assesses that the regime used the weapons as part of a larger attack on rebel-held areas of east Damascus, which occurred in the hours surrounding the chemical attack. The larger attack is described on a general timeline between 3:00 and 6:00 AM local on 21 August.
3. French analysts suspect that Assad’s position in the capital was not as solid as media reporting has suggested in recent weeks. (This point is expressed with less detail and less apparent confidence.)
4. French analysts assess that Assad’s forces mounted a major bombing campaign in the aftermath of the chemical attack in order to cover the evidence remaining from the attack. (This would not be a wasted effort. Chemical residue would degrade, and interact with the carbon released from conventional attacks, in such a way that proving its use through the lingering presence of toxins could become difficult to impossible, with sufficient “laundering.”)
Collateral points on Assad’s chemical weapons program
Two additional points are worth making about the French assessment. One, the emphasis on the relative sophistication of the regime versus the rebels, when it comes to chemical weapons use, is valid and important. The regime’s forces have mastered the most effective methods of chemical-weapons deployment, including deployment in the final, mixed state at the point of “launch.”
Doing this requires virtually instantaneous weapons use after mixing, for example, and self-protection for the deployment team. This level of mastery is what is required to synchronize a large-scale attack with a conventional attack, and have it be effective on the scale seen with the 21 August attack, in which nearly 1,500 victims are reported to have perished directly from the toxic effects of the chemicals.
Outside of a closed, air-controlled environment (like the subway system in which the Japanese terrorists of Aum Shinrikyo loosed sarin in 1995), such mass-scale effects are by no means automatic with chemical use. It takes a tremendous, carefully delivered concentration of the toxin to kill that many people in a non-enclosed area.
Compare such a level of expertise and technology with the crude, binary deployment device depicted in this video of a rebel chemical weapons launch. Other chemical-capable weaponry in the rebels’ arsenal – e.g., Katyusha rockets – endows them with no more than the level of capability suggested by this video of the jerry-rigged howitzer. I don’t doubt the rebels have chemical-capable weapons and materials, but I do doubt very much that they could bring off the 21 August attack, on the scale and with the precise coordination it required.
(The French analysts point out, moreover, that the conventional attacks surrounding the chemical attack could only have been mounted and synchronized from firing positions held by Assad’s forces.)
The other point from the French assessment is found at the end of the general discussion of Assad’s chemical weapons program (at the bottom of page 4 of the PDF document):
Des activités observées depuis plusieurs années sur des sites d’essais syriens témoignent que de nouveaux modes de dispersion sont à l’étude. Notamment, depuis le début du conflit, nos renseignements confirment une utilisation par le régime de munitions transportant de plus faibles volumes d’agents chimiques, adaptées à un usage tactique, plus ciblé et localisé.
This translates roughly as follows (my translation):
Activities observed for several years at Syrian test sites indicate that new methods of [chemical] dispersion are being studied. Notably, since the beginning of the conflict, our intelligence confirms a use by the regime of munitions carrying smaller amounts of chemical agents, adapted for a tactical, more targeted and localized application.
This is noteworthy for two reasons. One, it is an indication of serious intent by the regime to be able to use chemical weapons effectively in the civil war, and particularly on very small numbers of humans – which would increase the options for combat application.
Two, however, it tends to corroborate a pattern suggested by reports of possible napalm use by the regime, also in August. Napalm is not a chemical weapon per se; it is an incendiary weapon. But using it deliberately on humans is a war crime.
On 27 August, Reuters reported the possible use of napalm on a group of boys in Aleppo, an attack allegedly perpetrated by Assad’s forces. A video circulated shortly thereafter appears to be of effects from the attack in this report.
The especially noteworthy aspect of this attack is its extremely small scope – contained within a schoolyard – which is not characteristic of napalm use. (The ghastly effects on the people in the video are consistent with napalm, however, as is the damage in the schoolyard.) According to eyewitnesses, the incendiary device was deployed from a fighter aircraft, which went back and forth overhead, apparently looking for a target. Deployment from a fighter would rule out perpetration by the rebels.
The French assessment that Assad has been developing smaller-scale applications for chemical weapons suggests a parallel with a regime attempt to develop smaller-scale applications for napalm. The data points, in concert, are at the least very interesting.
Signs continue to point to Assad
We may note, getting back to Yossef Bodansky’s theory about the rebels, that if they indeed were plotting a “war-changing” campaign on 13-14 August, and if an unprecedented distribution of rebel weapons began on 21 August, those facts would certainly serve to explain Assad’s sudden urge to consolidate his control of Damascus, including wiping out rebel positions in east Damascus as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. What Bodansky may actually have done is offer the best explanation so far of why Assad would want to use chemical weapons on 21 August.
That said, it helps if we understand the intemperate, conspiratorialist tone of the website at which the Bodansky post appears: Global Research, featuring the hysterical writings of authors like Rick Rozoff (“Stop NATO”), Gilad Atzmon (whom we encountered at the wildly anti-Semitic website Veterans News Now), and 9/11 Truther Michel Chossudovksy. Global Research starts with the perspective that the U.S. and NATO are bad for the world; its writers’ analyses tend to go downhill from there. Whatever the merits of Bodansky’s alleged facts – and he has sometimes had useful, corroborated facts in the past – this gathering of intellects is not where you want to hang your analytical hat.
Meanwhile, in addition to U.S., British, and French intelligence, German intelligence has also concluded that Assad mounted the chemical attack.
None of this means that the U.S. response, especially under today’s fiscally- and readiness-constrained conditions, needs to be a strike on Syria, either way-limited, moderately-limited, delayed-limited, less-limited, or limited-but-not-limited-to-limited.
But we need to keep things straight and argue only from valid, supportable premises. In the case of the 21 August attack, arguments that the rebels must have mounted a false flag operation lack a good foundation. Western intelligence agencies are concluding that Assad’s forces mounted this attack because the evidence is strong that they did.