“We have confidence in our assessment because we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, laboratory analysis of physiological samples collected from multiple victims, as well as a significant body of credible open source reporting, that tells a clear and consistent story. We cannot publicly release all available intelligence on this attack due to the need to protect sources and methods, but the following includes an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community's analysis of this attack.”
Oh, that’s slick… and a real crock. This report gives the impression that the White House has more classified evidence that can’t be exposed to protect sources and methods. That’s a reasonable impression. The IC report on the Russian attack on the 2016 election process made the same claim and suffered widespread skepticism by doing so. This is as it should be. Given the primacy of information operations and the all consuming desire to control the narrative, it’s difficult to take anybody, especially a government, at their word. If we are serious about protecting intelligence sources and methods, we must accept this conundrum as a way of life. I only accept the premise of the IC Russia report because of my ten plus years of experience with the subject matter, not because the IC said so in a report lacking any convincing evidence. But I recognize this White House report on the Syrian chemical attack of 4 April as a steaming pile of manure for precisely the same reason.
While the IC Russia report stated its classified evidence simply would not be exposed, the White House Syria report states what it used for evidence… mostly jihadi produced social media evidence. That’s fortunate because we can examine all this open source information with a critical eye. It is curious that this is a White House report and not an IC report. Is the IC on board? I doubt it. Phil Giraldi said “that military and IC personnel intimately familiar with the available intelligence say that the narrative that Assad or Russia did it is a sham, instead endorsing the Russian narrative that Assad’s forces had bombed a storage facility.” There are few people I take at their word. Phil Giraldi is one of them.
Of the sources cited by the White House report, only signals intelligence can be considered classified evidence. The bulk of its evidence is available for all to examine. Many have done so. I suggest we look at these and, if so inclined, do some digging ourselves.
The only new claim made by the White House report is that Syrian personnel formerly associated with SAA chemical weapons were present at Shayarat Airfield. Perhaps former SAA and SAAF chemical troops were at the airfield. These troops have undoubtedly been redeployed to other jobs throughout the Syrian forces after the Syrian chemical weapons and stores were destroyed. Was this the signals intelligence? Not too impressive. Recordings of the Syrian pilots over Khan Shaykhun would be a far more convincing piece of signals intelligence, but such evidence is not alluded to in the report.
Geospatial intelligence is the fancy word for overhead photography and Google Maps/Google Earth. The lab analysis of blood, tissue and urine samples was provided by Turkey, the long time supporter of IS and the jihadis in Idlib. I consider that to be part of the jihadi information operation. Soil samples and debris from the suspected gas shell, which would provide much more definitive evidence, are mysteriously not available.
Almost all other evidence is from local accounts, photos and videos provided by the Al Qaeda White Helmets and other jihadi sources. The report claims this local evidence can’t be faked. That’s a joke. A cursory review of videos and photos show unprotected “rescue workers” handling contaminated bodies with impunity, a dead child with a number on her forehead opening her eyes, an elderly man sitting on the ground having his keffiyah pulled off his head by what appears to be a film director. These are just little things that struck me. I was also struck by the many accounts of a chlorine smell from the odorless sarin gas.
The White House report claims the rationale for a Syrian Air Force chemical attack is that Assad’s forces were in a dire military situation north of Homs. By the time of the Khan Shaykhun attack, the SAA already recaptured most of the territory lost to the jihadi Homs offensive and the Homs airport was no longer threatened. Any air attack on Khan Shaykhun, chemical or conventional, would have no military effect on the Homs front. This rationale attributed to the Syrian government by the White House is absolutely bogus. The White house report would be more believable if it claimed the gas attack was the result of a series of mistakes and miscalculations by Syrian personnel.
The White House goes to great lengths to disparage the Russian explanation of a Syrian attack on a jihadi munitions manufacturing/storage facility. Much of this disparagement consists of dismissing the Russians as devious tricksters. Yes, the Russians are damned good at information warfare and active measures. I admire their skills and abilities at this craft. It is precisely because of this Russian expertise that I find the idea of a deliberate chemical attack perpetrated by their close ally to be ludicrous. What would be the devious objective of this attack? Surely these master tricksters would have a plan for this and would have implemented it by now.
Perhaps the Russians will reveal some intelligence on the jihadi munitions storage/manufacturing facility at Khan Shaykhun. Maybe someone could do some geospatial intelligence analysis of this facility. I would find both, or either one, quite satisfying.