The Obama administration's plan to get rid of Syria's
chemical weapons depends on President Bashar al-Assad letting international
inspectors into his country -- and standing by as they destroy the deadly
agents in his arsenal.
But former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials -- as
well as Syria experts -- doubt that Assad has any intention of doing this. And
in his tacit agreement to the daunting weapons-removal plan, which was brokered by the United States
and Russia and will take months if not years to complete, they detect a
"I think this is the Syrians playing for time," Michael
Morell, the recently-retired deputy director of the Central Intelligence
Agency, told Foreign Policy. "I do not believe that they would seriously
consider giving up their chemical weapons."
The weapons that Assad is believed to have used in a
devastating August 21 attack in Damascus provide him with an
important regional defense, one he is not likely to give up. The regime has
"long seen them as a strategic deterrent against Israel," Morell said. "Be a
skeptic that [Assad] is at all serious about this."
Morell also advised equal skepticism about Russia's
intentions. The country is one of Syria's few allies, and has already ruled out
any use of military force if Assad fails to comply with the plan to gather up
Now, amid a pause in U.S. military action, Assad has the
time and a reason to hide his arsenal or spirit pieces of it out of the
country. For the past three months, reports from Syria analysts and rebels
fighting Assad have suggested that he has shifted his stockpile to new
locations. One opposition general even claimed that Assad gave some of his stockpile to Hezbollah in Lebanon and
moved portions into Iraq. "A great deal of reporting indicates he is moving his
chemical weapons around," said Chris Harmer, a retired Navy officer and an
analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, which monitors Syrian military
movements and reports from citizens and fighters in the country.
"This delay has given the regime plenty of time to come up
with quite a comprehensive plan for how to best position themselves to deal
with a military strike," said Valerie Szybala, a Syria analyst with the
institute. Assad now knows which regime targets the United States
would likely strike if the diplomatic route fails, but he also knows that the
attack isn't imminent. Under the U.S.-Russia framework agreement, weapons
inspectors are supposed to be in Syria by November.
"I do not think Assad's intentions are genuine," Szybala
said, who, like Morell, doubted that the Syrian dictator would ever comply with
the U.S.-Russia plan. "Nothing that has ever come out of this regime has given
us an indication they're trustworthy."
Since the Syrian civil war began, U.S. intelligence agencies
have been trying to keep close tabs on the country's chemical weapons arsenal.
"That's always been a priority for us, trying to figure out
where the stuff is," said Morell, who twice served as acting director of the
CIA and retired in August after a 33-year career at the agency. "It was one of
our top requirements. It will be even more so now. I think it will just
increase in importance."
U.S. intelligence agencies have had more than two years to
take satellite photos of Syria's chemical weapons production facilities, eavesdrop
on military and regime officials, and to assess the intentions and capabilities
of Syria's leaders. But that was painstaking work, made all the more difficult
by the nature of the weapons the United States is trying to track.
"Chemical weapons are easy to hide and easy to move around,"
Morell said. It's difficult to track individual containers of weapons,
particularly when they're transported. According to Harmer, "A truck full of
chemical weapons warheads looks like any other truck; there is nothing unique
about it, so it is more difficult to assess what [Assad] is doing."
Asked whether Assad now has a greater motivation to move his
weapons into new storage facilities or hiding places, Morell replied,
The United States appears to have some idea of how big
Assad's chemical arsenal is. Reportedly, U.S. and Russian negotiators were able
to agree on the size when negotiating the
disarmament plan. And Syria watchers said that there are some known production
facilities that have been monitored by independent observers and U.S. spies for
But outsiders haven't had direct access to any locations
known to house chemical weapons since the civil war began in 2011, Szybala
said. "The world has kind of lost track of where they are."
As yet, no firm evidence has emerged that shows where Assad
is hiding the stockpiles or whom he may have given them to. But analysts have
had some success tracking the movements of conventional forces, including
artillery batteries used to deliver the gas.
"By all accounts, Assad is decentralizing his conventional
forces to the [maximum] extent possible, making them less vulnerable to an
attack by the U.S.," Harmer said. "We have seen a good deal of Twitter and
Facebook chatter from the rebels indicating that Assad is repositioning assets
out of Mount Qasioun [overlooking Damascus] and moving those assets closer to
civilian populations," where they would be harder to hit without injuring or
killing innocent bystanders.
Independent analysts as well as U.S. intelligence agencies
have relied heavily on social media reports from people in Syria to keep track
of Assad's conventional forces, and to a lesser extent the movement of his
chemical arsenal. Twitter feeds and YouTube videos were a key part of the U.S.
intelligence assessment that put the blame for the August
21 attack on Assad's forces.
"It is obviously more difficult to track chemical
weapons movement using open source intelligence than it is to track conventional
weapons movements," Harmer said, referring to sources of information, like
social media, that are publicly available.
The plan to sequester and destroy Assad's chemical weapons
put on hold U.S. plans to strike at the Assad regime. Some experts doubt that
the delay in a military strike will make much difference in the United States'
ability to collect intelligence on the Syrian regime, or that it would at least
not degrade those efforts.
"Methods that we employed before should still work in the
future, on the one hand," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense
expert at the Brookings Institution. "On the other, information that was
largely inaccessible to us before will likely remain hard to obtain even in
coming weeks and months."
Like other observers, O'Hanlon agreed that Assad "is playing
for time... but he may be able to do that and gradually give up his chemicals.
After all, his short-term goal is survival. A slow process that secures and
then destroys his chemicals may not preclude that."
Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer now with Brookings,
agreed with assessments that U.S. intelligence on Assad's chemical weapons
capabilities is probably as good as it's going to get. "I think the bigger
problem now is security," he said, as weapons inspectors prepare to take stock
of the Syrian arsenal.
"The Syrian army has to provide security for visits to
installations in the areas it controls. It provided only limited security for
the team that investigated the August attacks; it must do much much better,"
The delay in a military strike could end up working to the
benefit of U.S. intelligence agencies if it helps them develop new sources of
information and look more closely at Syrian military movements.
"The upside is, the intel community has more time to
reposition assets, get better coverage, tighten their technical understanding
of where Assad's forces are," Harmer said. "However, given that we are about 30
months into a civil war...the IC should have been all over this already. So, we
are giving the IC time to complete a task they probably already have completed
and updated several times over."
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