Syria: helps to know whodunit before sentencing

Even if you believe that the Syrian government or military used chemical weapons, it’s unclear who gave the order, but it matters.

With Syria, the United States has been judge, jury, and hopes to be the executioner. The trouble is that its idea of who the accused is remains ill-defined. The United States seeks to hold the Assad regime responsible, but, if it has any idea who ordered the attack – the president, top military command, or local commanders – it’s not letting us in on the secret. As is often the case, that hasn’t stopped us from rushing to judgment, declaring the administration and military guilty, and sentencing them.

More from at Mark Hosenball at Reuters on September 7:

With the United States threatening to attack Syria, U.S. and allied intelligence services are still trying to work out who ordered the poison gas attack on rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus.

Of course

The Syrian government, backed by Russia, blames Sunni rebels for the gas attack. Russia says Washington has not provided convincing proof that Assad’s troops carried out the attack and called it a “provocation” by rebel forces hoping to encourage a military response by the United States.

In fact

No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some U.S. sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.

Initial reports

… that Assad’s brother, Maher, a general who commands an elite Republican Guard unit and a crack Syrian army armored division, gave the order to use chemicals have not been substantiated, U.S. sources said. Some U.S. sources now believe Maher Assad did not order the attack and was not directly involved.

In any event, while “penetrating the secretive Syrian government is tough, especially as it fights a chaotic civil war for its survival,” identifying

… Syrian commanders or leaders as those who gave an order to fire rockets into the Sunni Muslim areas could help Obama convince a war-weary American public and skeptical members of Congress to back limited strikes against Assad.

As well as avoid the same kind of guilt by association it has employed in recent years to disastrous effect with drone attacks. In fact, this two-part series about a former Syrian Army sergeant at the Daily Beast by Andrew Slater suggests local commanders have a fair amount of autonomy. The sergeant, who Slater calls Heen, says of the commander of his unit, which was charged with suppressing protests (the heavy-handedness of which begat the rebellion):

Our captain had a very strong voice and a strong personality; he was an Alawi like most officers. He never sounded unsure of himself or conflicted about what we had to do in Dara’a. While he got his orders from the ameed, the colonel, mostly he had freedom to do anything he wanted in our assigned area: arrests, raids, shootings, destroying buildings.

Providing more fodder for those who don’t accept the Obama administration’s version of events is a memorandum first posted at Consortium News on Sept. 6 by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. Among its member/signatories are Thomas Drake, Philip Giraldi, Coleen Rowley, and Ray McGovern. The memo, addressed to President Obama, begins:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers [in U.S. intelligence] are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. … Our sources confirm that a chemical incident of some sort did cause fatalities and injuries on August 21 in a suburb of Damascus. They insist, however, that the incident was not the result of an attack by the Syrian Army using military-grade chemical weapons from its arsenal. That is the most salient fact, according to CIA officers working on the Syria issue. They tell us that CIA Director John Brennan is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, the public  – and perhaps even you.

Hey, at least Brennan was kind enough to provide the president with some cover. More on that from the memo:

In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you [again, President Obama] have not been fully informed because your advisers decided to afford you the opportunity for what is commonly known as “plausible denial.”

Alternately, if a commander in the Syrian army was responsible, at least he provided President Assad with that very same plausible deniability.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.