'Panicked intercepted calls' at heart of intelligence

United States intelligence services overheard a Syrian Defence Ministry official in "panicked phone calls with the leader of a chemical weapons unit" after last week's deadly chemical attack, Foreign Policy magazine reports.

Separately the Washington Post reported that the Obama Administration believes that US intelligence has worked out how Syrian Government forces stored, assembled and launched the chemical weapons allegedly used in the attack. The Administration is planning to release evidence, as early as tomorrow, in a report being compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Foreign Policy said the phone calls were "the major reason why American officials now say they're certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime."

It said: "Last [Thursday], in the hours after [the attack] an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defence exchanged panicked phone calls with leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1000 people.

Those conversations were overheard by US intelligence services."

CNN also reported the intelligence assessment would include intercepted intelligence and forensic information.

The Foreign Policy report says US analysts aren't sure of the rationale for launching the attack. "We don't know exactly why it happened," an intelligence official said. "We just know it was pretty f***ing stupid."

All the indications are that it is now only a matter of days before the West enters Syria's civil war. "We are ready to go," Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of Defence, said yesterday when asked whether the Pentagon had assets in place ready to stage an attack.

The world's most advanced war machines should be able to hit chemical sites with the aim of preventing Assad using such weapons on his people in the future. But those targets would not be the only ones facing Tomahawk barrages. The regime's command and control system, its missile and airbases, communications systems, will have to be "suppressed" to secure the safety of Western air crews, if warplanes are deployed.

The US, Britain and France have made repeated demands that President Assad steps down. However, senior members of all three administrations also privately acknowledge that a total victory for the rebels - with al-Qaeda-linked groups among them the most powerful - is not a comforting scenario.

But the fact remains that the destruction of some of the Syrian regime's most important military assets would leave it considerably weaker.

Destroying its aircraft and missiles would remove one of the key advantages it holds over the rebels. Among the targets supposedly being looked at is the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armoured Division, commanded by Assad's brother Maher. The brigade has been blamed for last week's attack on Ghouta, but it is also one of the best-trained and equipped and its loss would have a significant impact on the course of the conflict. The ones to benefit directly would be the extremist Islamists because they are the best equipped to seize ground.

Hanging over the mission is the warning of General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that air strikes "would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict".

What, for example, would the US-led coalition of the willing do if there were signs that the regime's troops were transporting stocks of WMDs by road? Under the aim of eliminating stockpiles, these convoys would have to be hit. What would happen if chemical and biological agents were placed in civilian areas where Tomahawk strikes would inevitably lead to unacceptable civilian collateral damage? The only means of securing the material would be to send in troops - which all the Western leaders are adamant that they are unwilling to do.

The ideal scenario, say British and American officials, would be that the air strikes would bring the regime to the negotiating table. "One of the reasons why Geneva 2 [proposed talks] have not taken place is because Assad has been making territorial gains. This will even things up," said a senior diplomat. He added: "But we are all, of course, aware of the law of unintended consequences."

- Independent, AFP

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