Obama’s Narrative on Syria is Falling Apart

Posted: Sep 06, 2013 12:01 AM

Russia-Syria: The Russian military news agency, Interfax-AVN, reported two more Russian ships are heading to the Mediterranean Sea. The destroyer Nastoychivyy of the Baltic Fleet and the patrol combatant Smetlivy of the Black Sea Fleet will join the Russian Navy's task force in Mediterranean in the next few days, Interfax-AVN was told at the Main Staff of the Navy on Wednesday, 4 September.

"The patrol combatant Smetlivy will enter the Mediterranean for combat duty in the next few days in accordance with operational command plans. The flagship of the Baltic Fleet, the destroyer Nastoychivyy, is expected to join the group of our ships," a spokesman said.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said the patrol combatant Neustrashimyy and the large landing ships Aleksandr Shabalin, Admiral Nevelskoy and Peresvet are carrying out missions in the Mediterranean in accordance with operational command plans.

The large landing ships of the Black Sea and Baltic fleets, the Novocherkassk and the Minsk, will join them on 5-6 September. The medium reconnaissance ship SSV-21 Priazovye, which put out from Sevastopol on 1 September, is acting in accordance with special plans of the General Staff.

Comment: The Russian navy task force in the Mediterranean Sea is supposed to comprise 16 ships of various types. Eight of them are listed above. They have the capability to harass any US naval formation of destroyers.

Comments from Navy and Marine Corps veterans question the wisdom of using fleet defense assets - destroyers - in an offensive strike role. The key question is who or what protects the destroyers after they shoot, with Russian destroyers and patrol combatants around. Submarines presumably, but they are not effective in preventing harassment and disruption of surface formations.

Russia-US/ France: President Vladimir Putin warned the West against taking one-sided action in Syria, but also said Russia 'doesn't exclude' supporting a UN resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proven that Damascus used poison gas on its own people.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and Russia's state Channel 1 television, Putin said Russia is developing a plan of action in case the United States does attack Syria without United Nations approval, but he declined to go into specifics.

He said he 'doesn't exclude' the possibility of backing force against Syria, but at this stage he does not even accept that an alleged chemical weapons attack took place."

Syria and Gas: Previously, the US, France and the UK published declassified documents about the 21 August gas attack and Syrian government forces use of gas in the past. Today, Russia published a summary of its findings about a prior attack that was alleged loudly and wrongly to be a Syrian government chemical attack.

This Russian study concerns a gas attack in Aleppo, also attributed to the Syrian government. The Russian document has received no coverage in Western media.

NightWatch reproduces the Russian report below.

"Text of "Commentary by the Information and Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in connection with the situation concerning the investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria" by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on 4 September"

"We note a massive injection into the information space of material of different kind with a view to make official Damascus responsible for a possible use of chemical weapons in Syria even before the publication of the results of the UN investigation. "Groundwork" is thus being prepared for the use of force against it. In view of this, we deem it permissible to share the main findings of the Russian analysis of the samples collected at the site of the incident involving the use of toxic warfare substances in Aleppo's Khan al-Assal suburb."

"We recall that that the tragedy, which killed 26 civilians and Syrian army servicemen and left 86 people with injuries of varying severity, took place on 19 March of this year. The results of the analysis of samples carried out by a Russian laboratory certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at the request of the Syrian authorities were on 9 July handed over to the UN secretary-general due to the Syrian authorities' request for him to conduct an independent investigation into that incident. The Russian specialists' main findings are as follows:

- the used piece of ammunition was not a standard issue piece of Syrian army ammunition but a crudely produced one whose type and parameters were similar to those of the unguided rockets produced in Syria's north by the so-called Bashair al-Nasr brigade;

- hexogen, which is not used in standard chemical munitions, was used as the charge to detonate the round;

- non-industrially synthesized nerve agent Sarin and diisopropylfluorophosphate, which Western countries used for chemical weapons purposes in World War II years, were found in round and soil samples."

"We stress that the Russian report is extremely specific. It represents a 100-page scientific-technical document with numerous tables and diagrams reflecting a spectral analysis of samples. We hope that it will be of significant help in the UN's investigation into this incident. Unfortunately, effectively it has not started yet."

"The attention of those who wittingly, and always, seek to place all responsibility for the developments on the Syrian Arab Republic's official authorities has fully shifted to the events in eastern Al-Ghutah. However, in this respect too there is "selectiveness coupled with a shortcoming". Specifically, attempts to forget the data about the exposure of Syrian army servicemen to toxic agents during the discovery on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of materials, equipment and containers with traces of Sarin on 22, 24 and 25 August supplied by official Damascus to the UN are evident. As is known, the condition of the injured servicemen was examined by members of the group of UN experts headed by A. Sellstrom. It is clear that any objective investigation into the 21 August incident in eastern Ghutah is impossible unless these circumstances are taken into account."

"In view of the above, we welcome the statement by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the A. Sellstrom group intends to go back to Syria in the near future to continue its work, including in the Khan al-Assal area."

"4 September 2013"

Comment: With this Russian document, there are four national reports about the use of gas in Syria. One each from the US, France, the UK and Russia. The three Western reports provide circumstantial evidence at best. They are not intelligence appraisals because they fail to address contradictory and contrarian evidence that is at least as strong as that which they present in support of their case. They are advocacy, not intelligence.

The only report missing is the only report that really counts to establish some ground truth. That is the UN report. A prior UN report found that the Syrian opposition used gas in July 2012, precisely as described by the Russians.

US- Syria: Special comment. The US government assessment on Syria is not weathering challenges well by open source reports and investigative journalists. Parts are unraveling.

Today, the US admitted that US intelligence did not have intelligence about Syrian Arab Army preparations before the attack on 21 August. That flatly contradicts testimony presented to Congress this week.

In the normal fashion of signals intelligence, the electrons had been intercepted, but they remained inchoate and unprocessed until after the attack. The US had data somewhere, but no information.

The alleged incriminating information was reconstructed and converted into evidence of malevolent Syrian intent for the US Congress after the fact. The way that information was presented was at a minimum dishonest.

Videos from government sources posted to the web showed home-made rebel rockets and a firing system to which only the Russian report refers. Those videos are not discussed by the US report. As illustrations, they are undated, like the rebel videos of casualties from 21 August.

The US analysis of observed so-called symptoms of an attack by nerve agents is also weakening. Multiple reputable experts, including Feedback from six NightWatchReaders, disagree with the "assessment" that the symptoms seen in videos are those of sarin poisoning, even in diluted form. The Russians have a better explanation for the same symptoms, which they evaluated in March.

The Daily Caller published an uncorroborated report that Egyptian intelligence reported the Syrian opposition advised its members of an event on 21 August that would bring the US into the Syrian conflict. No agency has provided an analysis of this report, which might not be true, but also might be highly relevant.

NightWatch cannot corroborate that information, but it provides an alternative explanation for Syrian Army preparations for chemical warfare attacks. That alternative is supported by the fact that the UN visited wounded Syrian Army soldiers in hospital.

The Daily Caller also published excerpts of signals intercepts that provide an alternative to the US assessment of panicky calls to a chemical warfare unit asking about the 21 August attack. The alternative reporting is that a General Staff officer asked a rocket unit commander in  a brigade of the 4th Armored Division whether he had launched an attack against specific orders.

The rocket regimental commander supposedly said he fired no rockets and could account for all of them. The General Staff confirmed the report of the rocket unit commander. 

There is more to this series of exchanges, but the point is that they raise concerns that US information might have been cherry-picked by some entity in the reporting channel and taken out of context. That is easy to do with information from radio intercepts.

And so the information debate continues and should continue. The US assessment appears to have conflated information and sources; ignored time distortions and dates and misstated relevant points to support its argument. 

A heads up is necessary. The poor guidance that prompts intelligence supervisors to require analysts to make judgments about matters that can be scientifically established needs to be recognized by Readers.

The date of an attack is not a matter of judgment. Likewise, the use of sarin is not a matter for "assessment." The presence of sarin and other dangerous materials can and will be established by UN-sponsored laboratory analysis to some degree of probability. The inability of intelligence supervisors and analysts to distinguish matters appropriate for judgment from those that may be established as facts is a significant weakness.

The worst part of the three Western reports is their failure to consider reasonable alternative scenarios consistent with their information. That is a basic step in the scientific method. See R. Heuer,The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis..

Only the Russians have attempted to analyze an alternative scenario and contradictory evidence. Their analysis of the March 2013 incident proved to be the correct analysis, according to the UN. But in the 21 August crisis, senior US officials publicly have disparaged and dismissed UN findings as "irrelevant," even though highly respectable US and European laboratories do the lab work.

So Readers are left with the three questions raised last week:

What was the agent?

How was it delivered?

Who delivered it?

The three Western documents are advocacy arguments, not intelligence appraisals. Every attorney knows that emotive, loud and strident oratory is the tactic to use when there is no clear and convincing evidence.

The Russian document is an intelligence appraisal of a past attack that Western governments wrongly attributed to the Syrian government, according to the UN. It is a lesson in evidence: the evidence on both sides of an argument must be presented andweighed.

End of NightWatch


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