WASHINGTON — White House officials said today that the U.S. has amassed a mountain of evidence confirming that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used sarin against the town of Khan Shaykhun last week, and indicated they’re still trying to determine if Russia knew about the attack beforehand.
A declassified summary of the intelligence report on the attack that killed dozens and injured hundreds one week ago today found that the Syrian and Russian assertion that the nerve agent must have come from terrorist or rebel forces also has no basis in fact.
New information coming in “continues to be clear and consistent with our understanding of the attack,” a senior White House official told reporters on background today.
The declassified information was compiled from open-source materials ranging from videos to on-the-ground accounts, geospatial intelligence, U.S. signals intelligence, and physiological samples from attack victims.
The attack came from Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft out of the Shayrat airfield hit in subsequent U.S. strikes, the report says; the planes were in the Khan Shaykhun area for 20 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack came in, and left soon after. The administration also has “information that suggest that personnel historically associated with the chemical weapons program were at Shayrat airfield in late March preparing for this attack,” and these people were there again on the day of the attack.
The U.S. has confirmed the agent used in the attack was sarin, from testing on the victims and from symptom reports as well as “leakage around the actual weapon that we think the sarin came from.” Emergency personnel suffered exposure symptoms from coming into contact with contaminated victims.
A hospital treating attack victims was struck by conventional weapons about six hours after the chemical attack.
On hoax theories, the White House official said the “absolute massive data we have in all the different vehicles — we’ve gotten it from open-source videos, to victim accounts, to imagery, to signals intelligence, is just too massive for really any — any intelligence organization to fabricate in that short a period of time; we just think that’s not a feasible explanation.” Intel agencies have confirmed that videos distributed of the attack were filmed at the time and in the locations claimed.
“Across the board starting in 2013 [with the Ghouta sarin attack] and then since, we’ve seen both the Russians and the Syrians have a very clear campaign to try to obfuscate the nature of attacks, the attackers, and what has happened at any particular incident,” the official said.
“They’ve thrown out a bunch of potential agents, a bunch of potential responsible or accountable parties. And often their own information is inconsistent with their own narrative. They certainly have dismissed the allegations of a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. They called it a ‘prank of a provocative nature.’ But again, we don’t think it’s remotely possible for the Syrians or the Russians to have fabricated this much information so fast and so consistently on this attack.”
The official added that the Russian theory that a conventional regime strike hit a chemical weapons depot is “inconsistent” with the facts, stressing terrorist groups or rebels are not known to have sarin and “we don’t see a building, again, with that chemical residue we would expect if the Russian narrative was true.” The chemical weapon landed in the middle of a street.
It’s “quite clear to us, that in this case, this is not a terrorist holding of sarin, or a terrorist use of sarin, but we do know that the Syrian regime has sarin,” the official said.
Another official said the White House is “still looking into what we think the intelligence-community assessment or other is about Russian knowledge of, involvement, etc.”
The official said there’s “not a consensus on our side” yet “about the extent or how to interpret the information that we have and continue to get,” adding that historically and especially in the past two years of conflict Russia and Syria are two militaries that “operate very closely, even down to an operational and a tactical level.”
“And so considering the fact that there were Russian forces co-located with Syrian forces at the Shayrat airfield in addition to many other installations — many other Syrian regime installations around the country,” the official added. “We do think that it is a question worth asking the Russians about how is it possible that their forces were co-located with the Syrian forces that planned, prepared, and carried out chemical weapons attack at the same installation and did not have foreknowledge.”
“…We don’t know the tactical intentions of the Russians on that day, on any operations that they may have been involved in.”
The officials would not comment on the existence of any U.S. signals intelligence that would indicate collusion between the Russians and Syrians or a direct order from Assad to attack the town.
The first White House official said they “take very seriously the possibility that Syria may have additional agents elsewhere” and are “working with our intelligence community to understand every piece of information they have about where such munitions might be located, who might be a hold of them.”
“And I can tell you that that’s going to be part of what we try to figure out, where we go from here.”
Officials theorized that the chemical weapons strike was conducted because, even though a civilian neighborhood was the target, Khan Shaykhun was one of the support areas in the rear of the opposition front lines advancing on Hama since March. The city includes a key airbase for Assad’s forces.
“At that point, the regime, we think, calculated that with its manpower spread quite think trying to support both defensive operations and consolidation operations in Aleppo and along that north-south spine of western Syria, and also trying to support operations which required it to send manpower and resources east toward Palmyra, we believe that the regime probably calculated at that point that chemical weapons were necessary in order to try to make up for the manpower deficiency,” an official said.
“…We believe certainly that there were — there was an operational calculus that the regime and perhaps its Russian advisers went through in terms of the decision-making.”