Five reasons why US intelligence believes Assad used chemical weapons on his own people

A victim is examined by medics.
A victim is examined by medics.
Image: IHA via AP
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The Trump administration has “clear and consistent” information leading it to believe that the Syrian government bombed its own people with sarin nerve gas last week, senior intelligence officials said in a background briefing at the White House.

The officials presented information April 11 that they said was based on declassified intelligence, NGO observations, laboratory samples from victims, and social media reports. They said they believe the information proves both Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Russian government are lying about the April 4 attack that killed dozens.

The scope of the presentation and its location at the White House briefing room indicates that the US is seeking further attacks against Assad, and hopes to involve the United Nations. “It is incredibly important that we speak with one voice at the UN,” one official told reporters, to send a “clear message that the use of chemical weapons” is unacceptable. In a public briefing an hour later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer compared Assad to Adolf Hitler.

Here are key reasons US officials say the April 4 incident was carried out by Assad forces, in an air attack thought to have started at 6:55am local time:

1. The plane the bomb was on. The attack was conducted by a Su-22 “fixed-wing aircraft” that took off from Shayrat Airfield, which is held by the regime, administration officials said. The Russian-made aircraft is used by the Syrian government. (This is the airfield that the US bombed last week, in retaliation for the attacks.)

2. The people who were at the airfield earlier. People who were “historically associated” with Syria’s chemical-weapons program were at the airfield in late March, preparing for another attack on northern Syria, and on the day of the sarin gas attack.

3. The victims’ symptoms. Reports from the World Health Organization and social media show victims frothing at the mouth and twitching, which is consistent with sarin attacks. Early responders also had symptoms consistent with nerve gas, and tissue samples from the victims tested positive for sarin.

4. What ISIS possesses. Russian and Syrian officials say the gas came from stockpiles held by rebel forces. There is no known pattern of terrorists in the area using or having sarin gas, an official said, “but we know the Syrian regime has sarin.” ISIS does, however, possess mustard gas.

5. Assad’s struggling military operation in the region. The attack was an “operational calculus” by Assad as his forces moved east from Aleppo, one senior US administration official said. Assad calculated that chemical weapons were necessary to make up for “manpower deficiencies,” and aimed them at civilian areas that he may have thought housed ISIS fighters.

The hospital where the victims were taken was bombed by a conventional bomb at about 1pm, intelligence officials said, citing news reports and social accounts. The area around the hospital showed impact craters on April 6, the officials said, which were consistent with a traditional bomb.

“It is clear the Russians are trying to cover up” the Syrian attack, one White House official said. It is worth asking the Russians how it is possible that their forces have worked with the Syrian forces for years and “didn’t have foreknowledge” of the gas attack, the official said.

US president Donald Trump has expressed skepticism about the quality of the US’s own intelligence, particularly when it comes to chemical weapons. The officials in the briefing were career civil servants and included some holdovers from the previous administration. But they have Trump’s full confidence, a national security official appointed by Trump told Quartz.

The officials distributed a four-page report afterward that concluded “The United States calls on the world community in the strongest possible terms to stand with us in making an unambiguous statement that this behavior will not be tolerated,” and denounced Russia for vetoing UN Security Council measures that could have helped to “rectify the situation.”