September 09, 2013

#Sarin in #Syria: Who did it? Cui bono?

Update, Sept. 18: The UN investigation seems to tie the attacks to senior officers of President Bashar Assad. Whether they were following orders or not may still not be final, but the linked New York Times story indicates the answer is yes.

That said, per the oft-cited piece by William Polk at the Atlantic? His "cui bono" was, and still is, a good question. And, if part of why he wrote that piece was pushback, given America's generally poor history of regime change in the Middle East, the neocons leading the charge again on this one and Obama not having a Syria exit plan, the shoot-first warmongers can still look themselves in the mirror.

Now, back to the original blog post.

That rhetorical question in the header is the bottom line to remember, before John Kerry or anybody else on Team Obama gets to sounding so much like Bushies that soon we hear a chemical weapons equivalent of Condoleezza Rice's "smoking gun ... mushroom cloud." (Of course, they're taking their talking points from those of Dear Leader, so, who knows what will happen next.)

But, that leads us to the question of: Who did it? As Aum Shinrikyo showed in Tokyo, sarin is  relatively easy to produce and weaponize/distribute.

There's essentially six possible answers, the way I see it, with thoughts on motive.

1. Bashar Assad, though in The Atlantic, William Polk, after raising the "cui bono" question (right up there with the "follow the money" warning as two of the most important things to know when pulling on strings), said that Assad doesn't benefit. Why? He's been rolling back the rebels the last few weeks without chemical weapons.

2. The Syrian military, without an explicit order from Assad, as German intelligence reportedly thinks. In hindsight, I kind of berate myself for not thinking of this earlier as a theoretical option, if nothing else. Maybe, as some of them thought when he took over from his dad, some generals, or below them, some colonels and majors, think Assad fils isn't tough enough. Answer? They destabilize Syria further then mount a coup when he doesn't respond.

Now, I'm going to sort out various groups of rebels who could have done this.

3. "Secularists" like the Free Syrian Army. Given that they're the ones in US good graces, they arguably have the most to gain from US intervention if Assad is starting to turn things around versus all the rebels as a lump.

4. Kurdish nationalists. Theoretically possible. Given that the Kurdish Workers' Party, the PKK, has announced it has stopped its withdrawal from Turkey, Kurds in Syria might have a lot to gain. The Turkish economy is slipping again and Iraq looks like it could still possibly disintegrate, leaving Iraqi Kurds some choices.

5. Shi'ite rebels, presumably getting help from Hezbollah or directly from Iran. A variety of winners here. Hezbollah might hope it sucks Israel into sending ground troops into Syria, or otherwise bollixing things up. Iran could use a chemical weapons threat as a bargaining chip on economic sanctions against it.

6. Al-Qaeda type rebels. Name recognition for people that are largely "wannabes."

As for who would have had the ability to either produce or acquire chemical weapons?

1. We know the Assad government has them.

2. Army officers reportedly have indicated that control of said weapons might not be that tight, so No. 2 is viable.

3. "Secularists" might include disgruntled former civil servants. If the Army officers are right about loose control, theft is possible.

4. The PKK might have made sarin. Would it have already used it against Turkey at some point if it had, though? That might be a "tell" against it.

5. I don't know about Hezbollah, but an Iranian stockpile of sarin is certainly possible.

6. Not likely unless by theft, I'd say. That said, Iran reportedly told the US that these folks had chemical weapons. The same story notes that the Turks allegedly found sarin in "jihadi" rebels' homes in May.

That said, most of the possible players have at least some benefit from using chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, if it WAS Assad, or rogue generals, it looks like the Russkies are going to try to remove Dear Leader's excuse for warmaking. Yes, technically, John Kerry made the statement in what is being called an "offhand comment."

That said, looking at it below, no offhand comment. It's warmongering with a definite timetable, and a relatively short one, attached. And, if it wasn't Assad, or his generals, who did this, Mr. Heinz 57 Varieties (of Neoliberalism) could wind up being Just.Another.Bushie.™:
Lavrov's comments came after Secretary of State John Kerry suggested earlier in the day that if Syria gave up its chemical weapons by the end of the week an attack could be avoided. 

"He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting," Kerry told reporters during a press conference in London with his British counterpart. 
Oy. Again, where did we hear these words before? And, if Kerry says "we know you have more than that"? Again, where did we hear that before? Good thing sarin doesn't come in aluminum tubes.

Of course, he's just agreeing with the boss:
(Obama) said that “if we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”
Wait, wait? Aren't we supposed to "negotiate with our enemies," or is that 2008 campaign statement now inoperable.

No, we're not. I present your Warmonger in Chief:
“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” (Obama) said in the NBC interview. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”
Wow. The O-bots would crap their pants if Bush had said this.

Now? Per Ezra Klein, below, this is11-dimensional chess brilliance.

Meanwhile, Syria has accepted the proposal. Well, sort of. The foreign minister and prime minister has, but Assad himself hasn't yet commented. And, France is looking to put more teeth into the proposal.

So, if Obama still wants to warmonger, what straw does he grasp at next? (And, if this was rogue generals, Assad has good reason for accepting the idea, and making at least half an effort on following through.)

Anyway, contra Team Obama's blathering, we don't actually know who the hell did this. (More on that below.) 

Beyond that, even the death count is disputed.
Neither Kerry’s remarks nor the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence he referenced explained how the U.S. reached a tally of 1,429, including 426 children. The only attribution was “a preliminary government assessment.”
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, took aim at the death toll discrepancies in an essay published Sunday.
He criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429, and noted that the number didn’t agree with either the British assessment of “at least 350 fatalities” or other Syrian opposition sources, namely the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has confirmed 502 dead, including about 100 children and "tens" of rebel fighters, and has demanded that Kerry provide the names of the victims included in the U.S. tally.

“President Obama was then forced to round off the number at ‘well over 1,000 people’ – creating a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts,” Cordesman wrote. He added that the blunder was reminiscent of “the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary (Colin) Powell’s speech to the U.N. on Iraq in 2003.”
As usual, McClatchy, far more than other mainstream media, cuts through the bullshit of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. That's why, even more than I've said before, we'd be stupid to go to war.

You'd also be stupid to believe that alleged inside-the-Beltway political master, Ezra Klein, when he claims Dear Leader is at another brilliant game of 11-dimensional chess and has no intention of anything warlike. Klein's now doubled down on teh suck-up, acting like this is the outcome Dear Leader wanted. Only problem? As I've blogged before, Obama usually gets his hat handed to him when Ezra, Matty Y and the rest of the Brat Pack Smart Set claim he's playing 11-dimensional chess. This time, it will be others than the GOP in Congress holding said hat, possibly.

Besides, the more Dear Leader pushes, the more one like me gets cynical about other moves. Like this six-month waiver on not importing oil from Iran for some EU members for being "good sanctions kids." Is this done to give them a bit of economic boost for getting on board with Syria? 

At least Ezra's better than the wingnuts, who claim Obama planned this. (That's despite the "sarin" allegedly found in Turkey turning out to be antifreeze, per the reports of British blogger Brown Moses, who is becoming the go-to guy on Syrian weaponry issues and more for all mainstream media.) Though the idea that the Free Syrian Army did this, if you take away the anti-Obama conspiracy theory, is plausible. That, in turn, is better than the Religious Right's Amen corner for the neocons, at least the nuttier of them,  starting the Gog, Magog and End Times talk about Syria, per this YouTube video

But, I did my analyzing, and didn't make my wager, or offer odds.

I'll now address that.

1. Assad? 15 percent chance.

2. Assad's generals as mavericks? 40 percent.

3. Free Syrian Army? 25 percent 

4. Kurds? 5 percent.

5. Shi'ites? 5 percent.

6. Al Qaeda? 10 percent. 

I swapped the original percentages on the last two after reading the Iran warning story above. Folks like the Al-Nusra Front would "gain" by provoking the US into a "martyr-creating" response. I have since updated the odds to reflect some of "joshuaism" in his third comment.

Those odds should show you just how much I see just how convoluted this situation is. So should the fact that I just changed them.

That said, how much of a gap is there, really, between Assad's generals, if they are that maverick, and Assad's former generals running the Free Syrian Army? Given that the Free Syrian Army opposes the Russian proposal, one could argue that it has a vested interest in keeping a pipeline open to loosely guarded chemical weapons, and that the gaps about the same as Team Obama's "before" and "after" Kerry's comment stance.

Sadly, it seems that people who should know better are at least uncritically buying the "Assad did it" line, if not Ezra's line. 

The complexity of Syrian ethnic-religious politics. The Atlantic
Beyond that, I've grossly oversimplified the number of likely rebel groups. Here's Polk, again:
We know little about them, but what we do know is that they are divided into hundreds – some say as many as 1,200 -- of small, largely independent,  groups.
I wish people who say "Assad did it" would admit the possibility, and the not totally unreasonable possibility, that others did it.

Even if you triple my probability of Assad doing that, that's still just 37.5 percent, or 3-in-8, odds that he did. And, none of you have answered Polk, as extended by me, on "cui bono" if Assad was starting to gain the upper hand in conventional fighting.

That said, per the third comment below, I'd buy 60 percent odds of rogue generals doing it. 

Update, Sept. 10: The warmongers are monging tonight, in light of Obama's speech. On NPR just now, Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, was claiming out of thin air that Assad has crossed Obama's red line a dozen times since he made that statement a year ago.

Foreign Policy mag has its mind made up, calling Assad's claims not to have done it unbelievable. And, it goes on to claim that this has all brainwashed right-wingers into trumpeting Assad's claims.

Really? Anthony Cordesman's a winger? 

Update, Sept. 12: Somebody on Facebook asked why it matters who did it if we're trying to stabilize the area, control chemical weapons, and related issues.

Focusing on the "stabilization" issue, here's why it matters:

The issue of who did it influences where we aim our missiles, what follow-up we're going to do, etc. Say rogue generals did it. Directly attacking Assad could strengthen their hand for a coup. Say the Free Syrian Army, human-heart-eaters and all, did it. That could strengthen their hand, and Syria potentially is led by worse than Assad.

And, there's the simple morals issue of potentially attacking the wrong folks.

It matters a lot who did it, if you want to avoid the risk of destabilizing rather than stabilizing, or stabilizing a monster even worse. It matters a lot.  

Update 2, Sept. 12: The Nation is halfway right about alleged Syrian expert Elizabeth Bagy. It is a wag the dog, to some degree. But, it's part of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. Kimberly Kagan, the founder of the Institute for the Study of War, is part of the neocon wing of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. She is Fred Kagan's wife, Donald Kagan's daughter in law and Robert Kagan's brother in law.

For Greg Mitchell to not have drilled down that far is kind of sad.


joshuaism said...

Your odds seem to be based on the perception that all actors already have sarin weapon capability or are close to it but you failed to prove that point. In an earlier post you claim that sarin is both 1.) easy to produce and 2.) easy to weaponize but you have failed to show that point 2 is within the realm of non-state actors, only pointing to Aum Shinrikyo's use of sarin attacks. But Aum's attacks could only kill in the 10s of people because despite all of their efforts, creating weapons grade sarin is expensive and even more importantly, weaponizing it is incredibly difficult.

It is with good reason we have not seen further chemical weapons attacks by insurgents and terrorists in other wars. The only attacks to successfully kill in the 100s have been perpetrated by nation-states.

I agree that it would prove nothing to attack Syria and kill more people just to show our disgust for killing people with chemical weapons. But we look foolish if we argue that the insurgents are more likely to have perpetrated the attack without proof that they have equal access to chemical weapons.

Gadfly said...

And you seem to be either ignoring or dismissing the idea of theft (Free Syrian Army) or rogue generals still theoretically part of the regime (as German intelligence claims). No "production difficulties" with either one in that case. Plus, even if the wingnuts have half their story wrong, isn't it just possible the Turks busted an al Qaeda cell?

Second, you're apparently accepting at face value the death toll, which somebody even higher in pay grade than you, Anthony Cordesman, essentially called a lie.

Come back when you can have a more nuanced argument yet, though I will give you credit for some nuance in the first sentence of the last graf.

joshuaism said...

Can we all agree that some number of Damascans died, more than 100, less than 1000?

Can anyone point to a non-state actor that has pulled off a chemical attack at that level or greater?

I think you make a good point when evaluating motive and who has it. I especially appreciate your evaluation of "rogue generals" within Assad's army having the most to gain after the Free Syrian Army. But I think you overstate the possibility that the Free Syrian Army could have leveraged their knowledge in order to gain access to Assad's weapons.

So when evaluating motive AND capability I think your odds are skewed. Based off of what is currently known, my break down would be Assad: 30%, Assad's generals: 60%, Free Syrian Army: 10% and every other group at practically nil.

If and when you find a non-state actor that has pulled off a 100+ chemical attack then I will re-evaluate.

Gadfly said...

I can agree on 100.

Can't agree that the "no non-state actor has ever done this before" is a reason to reject non-Assad possibilities.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, nobody had flown a jumbo jet into a skyscraper before.

Besides, as I've said before, the rogue generals would have easy access. Al-Qaeda wannabes allegedly had access.

That said, the odds you state aren't unreasonable at all. I could even accept them. On your thinking, then ....

What's the generals' motive? Box the boss in a corner? Prelude to a coup? Something else?

joshuaism said...

To be honest I never considered the generals' acting separate from Assad until you brought them up and I think you outline all of their possible motives well.

That said, I believe all sides have nearly as much of a disincentive to use chemical weapons as they have to use them because in reality, there actually is a world-wide community "red-line" against the use of such "WMDs". The world will shun any actor caught using WMDs, especially in a "false-flag" act or in an attack against civilian targets.

But Obama's "red-line" talk really puts the generals in the best place. If the generals did it, Assad cannot de-implicate himself without destabilizing any sense that he is in control. If America attacks Syria for doing it, it will most likely hurt Assad and destabilize his control. If Assad implicates the generals, it destabilizes any facade that Syria is under his control.

All of these options weaken Assad's position, but so long as the rebels are weaker than the military, and the world/America is unwilling to engage in anything more than a limited attack, the generals actually come out ahead.

In some sense, the only team that could come out ahead after a chemical attack would be "rogue generals". Every other rational actor has something to lose except for them. But I assigned my probabilities based on known capability and the fact that no actor is completely rational.

Gadfly said...

Well put, and why, humanitarian issues aside, I'm against taking action until we know to a reasonable surety who did it.

We could wind up with a worse devil in charge than Assad. (This also gets back to people who say Obama has no "end game.")