Fifth US warship joins cruise missile ships in Mediterranean

Intelligence on chemical attack debated

• August 29, 2013 6:25 pm


A fifth U.S. warship steamed toward the eastern Mediterranean on Thursday to join four other cruise missile destroyers poised for strikes on Syria, as U.S. and allied military planning continued for a bombing campaign against Syria.

U.S. intelligence agencies, meanwhile, continued to put the finishing touches on an assessment the Obama administration expects will conclusively link Syrian government and military leaders to the deadly nerve agent strike near Damascus Aug. 21.

A defense official said the fifth destroyer, the USS Stout, would soon arrive in waters near Syria. The warship is armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Other officials familiar with intelligence reports said the White House is expected to release its intelligence assessment outlining the case against the Syrian government for the deadly nerve gas attacks near Damascus as early as Friday. The chemical rocket attack used nerve agent that killed up to 1,400 people.

Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, for its part, issued a statement Thursday blaming the Syrian government for the attack.

The committee stated that Syria has used chemical attacks 15 times since 2012, including the Aug. 21 attacks. The conclusion "was made with the highest possible level of certainty," the British intelligence group said.

It concluded its one-page assessment by stating that "the JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility" for the recent chemical strikes.

Obama administration officials briefed Congress Thursday evening on plans for a Syrian strike.

Sen. Bob Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member, said after hearing administration officials Thursday that he supports military action against Syria.

"While I’m opposed to American boots on the ground in Syria, I would support surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare," Corker said in a statement. "Whatever limited action is taken should not further commit the U.S. in Syria beyond the current strategy to strengthen the vetted, moderate opposition."

Corker said the administration would be "better off" if it sought congressional authorization for military strikes and that doing so would add "legitimacy" to any strikes.

House Speaker John Boehner wrote to President Barack Obama this week warning that an attack on the Syrian government could loosen control of Syria’s chemical arms that could fall into the hand of terrorists.

Two major al Qaeda rebel groups, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are operating in Syria and gaining strength.

Boehner also asked the president, "What result is the Administration seeking from its response?"

The strike is not expected to inflict serious military damage on either military or political leadership targets, according to defense officials.

One danger is that the strike could cause mass defections and the ultimate collapse of the Syrian military and security forces, potentially producing another failed state in the volatile Middle East.

Pentagon planners continued to refine strike options that are expected to begin with salvos of land-attack cruise missiles and possibly aircraft-launched precision-guided bombs against Syrian military targets.

A U.S. official said attack planning is well along and will be mainly based on four guided missile destroyers and at least one missile submarine now deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean.

"The president still has not made the decision yet about a response," Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.

Delays in ordering the attack, which Obama said Wednesday night would be meant to send a signal to the Syrian government not to use chemical arms again, were attributed by U.S. officials to opposition from Congress to a strike and diplomatic efforts to gain international support for the raids.

Britain's parliament Thursday voted against joining international military action against Syria.

France's government is said to be prepared to join the attack, possibly using naval-fired 134-mile-range Scalp cruise missiles.

Intelligence officials told Associated Press that the intelligence on who ordered the Syrian attack is "no slam dunk," a reference to CIA Director George Tenet’s 2003 assertion that spy agency reports of large stockpiles of Iraqi chemical arms was solid.

However, following the U.S. military invasion of Iraq, no large stockpiles were found and some defense officials believed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s chemical arms were moved covertly to Syria with Russian assistance prior to the invasion.

Obama, meanwhile, stated Wednesday that he is convinced the Syrian government was behind the attack.

The president said he has been give options from military leaders and held extensive discussions with national security aides.

"We have looked at all the evidence and we do not believe the opposition possessed … chemical weapons of that sort," Obama said on PBS. "We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences."

Obama said if he decided to use force, the purpose would be to send the Bashar al-Assad regime "a pretty strong signal that in fact it better not do it again."

The president said he had "no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable."

The missile and bombing strikes are expected to target missile and rocket units of the Syrian army. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Syria has more than 3,400 artillery pieces and up to 500 multiple rocket launcher units and 410 mortars.

According to AP, which quoted four U.S. officials, U.S. spy agencies have less confidence today than six months ago about the locations of chemical weapons storage sites. They also lack proof that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack.

A U.S. source said Israel intercepted a communication that was said to indicate commanders in Damascus had chastised a lower-level officer for carrying out the chemical artillery strike. However, the intercept later came under suspicion and its veracity was questioned.

According to CNN, intercepts of Syrian military communications are a key basis for concluding the Syrian government was behind the recent chemical weapons attack.

Intelligence officials have not been able to determine the type of nerve agent used, the cable outlet reported.

The officials told the news agency that the forthcoming U.S. intelligence report will state with "high confidence" that the Syrian government was behind the attacks.

Since the administration has announced plans for a punitive military strike, it is believed Syria has taken some defensive steps to prepare for the attack.

Syria’s government said it is prepared to defend itself if attacked.

Iran’s government also threatened reprisals for any strike on Syria.

The White House is debating with intelligence agencies on the wording of the assessment, according to a U.S. official.

Initially, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence planned to release the assessment as early as Tuesday. Release by ODNI was intended to give political weight to the conclusions.

However, after the initial draft was sent to the White House and revealed equivocation by intelligence agencies on the conclusions, the White House took over the process. The assessment is now expected to be made public by the White House, which is carefully crafting the language in final version of the assessment.

The "scrubbing" of the assessment will likely follow the pattern of the CIA talking points on the Benghazi attack, that were changed dramatically in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya, to play down al Qaeda terrorist links and play up allegations—later proved false—that the attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video.