Fact-Finding in Syria

How to Gather Intelligence in a Warzone

A Free Syria Army fighter watches from his position during a fight in Aleppo, 2012. (Ahmed Jadallah / Courtesy Reuters)

In late April, U.S. intelligence services concluded that sarin gas -- a chemical weapon estimated to be 500 times more powerful than cyanide -- had been used in Syria’s ongoing civil war. The White House, which had previously hinted that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons would be a trigger for intervention, has been quick to emphasize that it is not yet sure whether that trigger has been pulled. “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech at the end of the month, adding that the United States needs clearer evidence of how the chemical weapons were used and who exactly used them.

That is a tall order. Gathering hard evidence in such a closed country is an inherently difficult task; those who think otherwise should remember the faulty intelligence estimates indicating that Saddam Hussein had amassed extensive stores of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That misinformation launched a costly, tremendously controversial, and internationally divisive war -- a cautionary tale for those now responsible for compiling intelligence in Syria. 

If the Obama administration is serious in its quest to accumulate corroborating facts about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it should start from an understanding of what will not happen. There will be no full-fledged, transparent, and open investigation with the cooperation of the Syrian government. That seems like it would go without saying, yet in a letter to Congress, the White House expressed its preference to have a “comprehensive United Nations investigation” on the matter. Not only has Assad refused to allow UN inspectors into the country, his government’s own messaging has been consistently opaque, even contradictory: On April 25, the Syrian information minister announced that his country does not have such weapons, only to add that the army would not use them, “

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