French spies detail Assad’s weapons program

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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As Congress debates whether to authorize a military strike on Syria, the French government has released its declassified intelligence report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs.

France, the United States’ only remaining potential partner for military intervention in Syria, agrees in broad strokes with the White House’s view of the attack. Both governments present evidence that the Syrian regime launched chemical weapons on rebel-held neighborhoods, likely killing over 1,000 people.

But in terms of its level of detail, the French report puts the U.S. intelligence assessment to shame.

While the American report focuses solely on the most recent attack, the French provide a comprehensive look at the nature of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report includes a breakdown of the toxic agents that President Bashar Assad’s regime is believed to have obtained: Hundreds of tons of mustard gas, tens of tons of VX gas, and several hundred tons of sarin gas.

Assad’s sarin stockpiles, which the United States says were used in the Aug. 21 attack, reveal a “technological mastery” of chemical weapons, according to the French. The sarin is stored in binary form — the two chemical precursors necessary to make the gas are kept separate, and only mixed immediately before use.

This technological sophistication may be a key point when U.N. investigators release their report on the Damascus attack: If they find that the toxic agent used in the attack was an advanced form of sarin — containing chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents — the weapon will most likely have come from Syrian regime stockpiles.

While U.S. officials have conceded that they don’t know if Assad himself ordered the use of chemical weapons, the French assessment rebuts claims that the Aug. 21 attack could have been the work of a rogue officer.

France traces Syria’s chemical weapons program to “Branch 450” of the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research, which Israel bombed in May. Only Assad and top members of his regime, the report says, have authority to order the branch to employ its deadly weapons.

Nor does the report give credence to the idea of a rogue element within Branch 450 itself: The unit, it says, is “composed solely of Alawite military personnel … and distinguished by a high level of loyalty to the regime.”

One of the biggest mysteries of this episode is why Assad would risk the ire of the United States by using chemical weapons. While some analyses suggested the rebels were making gains in Damascus, the conventional wisdom was that Assad was making military progress without the use of chemical weapons.

The French report, however, suggests that Assad’s position in the capital was weaker than had been supposed: “Our information confirms that the regime feared a large-scale opposition attack in Damascus,” the assessment reads. The attack, it says, was intended to “secure strategic sites” that would allow Assad to control the capital, such as the Mezze military airport.

The French claim that Assad embarked on a massive cover-up to conceal the use of chemical weapons after the Aug. 21 attack. The Syrian military launched ground and air strikes on the eastern Damascus suburbs and denied investigators access to the area in the days following the assault, the report says.

It also accuses Syrian soldiers of starting fires to “purify the atmosphere” of toxic agents. Such actions, the French assessment states, “confirm a clear intention of destroying evidence.”

David Kenner is Middle East editor at Foreign Policy.

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