Feature

What if Syria's Assad didn't personally order the chemical weapons attack?

A German newspaper suggests that the armed forces lacked presidential permission for a poison gas attack. Does that change anything?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told PBS's Charlie Rose, in an interview set to air Monday night, that there's "no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people." A report in Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday suggests that, technically, Assad may be telling the truth.

Citing unidentified senior officials in Germany's intelligence services, Bild says that Syrian brigade and division commanders have been asking the presidential palace for permission to use chemical weapons for more than four months, and that permission has been denied each time.

The conclusion is reportedly based on radio communications intercepted by a German ship off the coast of Syria. If the report is accurate, it could mean that Assad didn't personally order the deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on civilians in the Damascus suburbs. That gas attack is the impetus for President Obama and French President Francois Hollande's call for military strikes against the Assad regime.

This isn't the only scoop from German intelligence. On Sept. 3, Der Spiegel reported that German spies had intercepted a phone call from Lebanon's Hezbollah to Iran, in which a high-ranking Hezbollah official complained that the Assad regime had made a big mistake by ordering the chemical weapons attack, a sign that the Syrian president had lost his nerve. That information was reportedly passed to a closed-door meeting of parliament by Gerhard Schindler, the head of Germany's NBD foreign intelligence agency.

If the latest report is correct, and Assad's regime, but not Assad himself, ordered the sarin gas attack, that could square the Western intelligence belief that anti-Assad forces don't have the capacity for such attacks with experts' doubts over why Assad would risk using banned nerve gas. "Assad has no credible motivation to use these weapons at this stage, and in this phase of the conflict," Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations says at CNN. "He is not losing."

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Sunday that the Obama administration had evidence that strongly suggests the regime is responsible for the chemical attack. But, he said, "they haven't linked it directly to Assad, in my estimation."

Denis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff, conceded as much on Sunday. The U.S. doesn't have "irrefutable beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence" that Assad himself ordered the attack, McDonough acknowledged to CNN. "Intelligence does not work that way." But, McDonough added, there's "a quite strong common-sense test irrespective of the intelligence that suggests that the regime carried this out."

Let's assume for a moment that Assad didn't personally order the gas attacks that reportedly killed more than 1,400 people. Would that change anything?

For many people in the United States — the war-weary American public, lawmakers who don't want to risk getting sucked into another Mideast war, and lawmakers who want to use Syria to send a message to Iran — it probably won't matter much whether Assad or the Assad regime was behind these gas attacks. If your position on Syria is already calcified, then this question is largely one of semantics.

It doesn't really matter to the adults and children being massacred in Syria, either, says Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. "Syria will be bloody whatever we do," but the only two real options on the table are intervention and paralysis. And doing nothing is worse than watching Syria's armed forces gas thousands of civilians, Kristof says.

And whether or not Assad himself ordered the gassing of his people, say Simon Tisdall and Josie Le Blond at Britain's The Guardian, the latest intelligence pretty clearly adds "weight to the claims of the Obama administration and Britain and France that elements of the Assad regime, and not renegade rebel groups, were responsible for the attack."

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