President Barack Obama talks with Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
As the Syrian government agrees to relinquish its chemical weapons, questions remain about whether some elements of the fractious Syrian rebel forces have obtained their own CW. There have been scattered news reports to that effect although rebel leaders deny the accounts.
Yet, one of the many questions left unanswered by the sketchy U.S. "Government Assessment" on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus is whether U.S. intelligence analysts are among those who believe the rebels possess some stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The dog-not-barking in that phrasing is the U.S. government's silence on whether some rebels have these weapons. After all, why would the U.S. intelligence agencies employ this narrow phrasing discounting the likelihood of a rebel attack on this one occasion if they could simply assert that the rebel forces could not have been responsible because they have no chemical weapons, period? The four-page white paper, issued on Aug. 30, danced around the question of whether the rebels possess CW by focusing only on whether the rebels were responsible for the attack. "We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely," the white paper said. "Our intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that opposition affiliates were planning to use chemical weapons."
The likely explanation is that U.S. intelligence agencies have indications that at least some rebel groups possess CW and may have used it in the past. That is a view that was expressed last May by Carla Del Ponte, a senior United Nations official responsible for Syrian investigations.
Del Ponte told a Swiss-Italian TV station, "Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report ... which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated."
Del Ponte added, "This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities."
Though other UN officials distanced themselves from Del Ponte's comments, he was not alone in raising the possibility of Syrian rebels with chemical weapons. Former Defense Department official F. Michael Maloof wrote on Sept. 11 for the right-wing World Net Daily's web site that WND had obtained a classified U.S. document in which "the U.S. military confirms that sarin was confiscated earlier this year from members of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most influential of the rebel Islamists fighting in Syria."
Though Maloof has a checkered reputation for accuracy -- having been part of President George W. Bush's propaganda campaign for invading Iraq -- he cites specific information from what he describes as a document classified "Secret/Noforn" produced by the U.S. intelligence community's National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC.
According to Maloof, "The document says sarin from al-Qaida in Iraq made its way into Turkey and that while some was seized, more could have been used in an attack last March on civilians and Syrian military soldiers in Aleppo. ... It revealed that AQI had produced a 'bench-scale' form of sarin in Iraq and then transferred it to Turkey."
Quoting from the NGIC's report, Maloof wrote that it "depicts our assessment of the status of effort at its peak -- primarily research and procurement activities -- when disrupted in late May 2013 with the arrest of several key individuals in Iraq and Turkey. ... Future reporting of indicators not previously observed would suggest that the effort continues to advance despite the arrests."
Maloof further reported that a 100-page report sent by the Russian government to the UN claims that rebel sarin gas was "manufactured in a Sunni-controlled region of Iraq and then transported to Turkey for use by the Syrian opposition, whose ranks have swelled with members of al-Qaida and affiliated groups."
Last week, prosecutors in southern Turkey obtained an indictment alleging that two Syrian rebel groups were seeking to buy precursor chemicals for the production of sarin gas, Turkish media reported. The indictment named six defendants, including Syrian national Hytham Qassap, and accused them of seeking the chemicals for Islamist rebels in Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades.
The Turkish prosecutors said they found no actual sarin during the May arrests that led to the indictment, but the case provided further evidence that some Syrian rebel groups have tried to arm themselves with chemical weapons. The Syrian government has blamed rebels for several apparent chemical attacks, including the one on Aug. 21, but the United States and its allies have fingered the Syrian army instead.
In the case of the Aug. 21 attack, which led to threatened U.S. military retaliation against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the Obama administration has asserted with "high confidence" that the Syrian government was responsible, but the U.S. "Government Assessment" presented no verifiable evidence pointing to Assad's guilt.
Meanwhile, an Italian journalist and a Belgian teacher who were just freed after months of captivity at the hands of Syrian rebels reported that they overheard the rebels claiming responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical attack. Domenico Quirico, the journalist, and Pierre Piccinin, the teacher, reported that they overheard their captors discussing the Aug. 21 attack on Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, and saying that Assad's forces were not behind it.
"It wasn't the government of Bashar al-Assad that used sarin gas or any other gas in Ghouta," Piccinin said on Belgian RTL radio. "We are sure about this because we overheard a conversation between rebels. It pains me to say it because I've been a fierce supporter of the Free Syrian Army in its rightful fight for democracy since 2012."