The United States and its allies have no “slam-dunk” evidence proving Syrian president Bashar al-Assad personally ordered his forces to use chemical weapons to attack a rebel-held Damascus neighbourhood, American security chiefs have said.
In secret assessments and a still-unreleased report summarising US intelligence on the alleged gas attack on 21 August, American officials say they are confident Syrian government forces carried out the attack, and that the Assad government therefore bears responsibility.
“This was not a rogue operation,” one US official said.
But several officials in Washington used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture. That was a reference to then CIA director George Tenet’s insistence in 2002 that US intelligence showing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk”.
A slam dunk is a basketball term for a certain score – but that Iraq intelligence turned out to be wrong.
In addition, the latest evidence does not prove Mr Assad ordered chemical munitions to be used, the officials said.
Thery also claim evidence that forces loyal to Mr Assad were responsible goes beyond the circumstantial to include electronic intercepts and some tentative scientific samples from the area that was attacked.
US secretary of state John Kerry, defence secretary Chuck Hagel and Admiral James Winnefeld jnr, vice-chairman of the American joint chiefs of staff, are among senior officials who briefed leading members of the US Congress last night about the situation in Syria and related intelligence assessments.
While President Barack Obama has not yet announced a decision on military action, he has left little doubt that the choice is not whether, but when, to punish Mr Assad’s government for the attack, in which hundreds of people died.
The briefing last night was given to leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the chairmen and leading members of the foreign relations, intelligence and armed services committees.
This week, US government spokesmen have made increasingly emphatic statements declaring that chemical weapons had been used and that Mr Assad’s government, rather than rebel forces, were responsible .
“This was a massive, large-scale, multiple-faceted attack against a wide swath of area using very sophisticated rockets, very sophisticated delivery systems that were armed with chemical weapons,” state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “There is one party in Syria who has the capability to do that, and it’s the Assad regime.”
Ms Harf added that US officials “ultimately, of course, hold president Assad responsible for the use of chemical weapons by his regime against his own people, regardless of where the command and control lies”.
Security sources say evidence suggests the initial decision to use chemical weapons may have been taken by a field commander rather than at the highest level of the Syrian government.
According to a former US official who is an expert on the region, one possibility is that the Syrian ground commander in charge of clearing out the area which was attacked, under heavy pressure from superiors, may have decided to use chemical weapons before sending in ground troops.
US intelligence did intercept communications which revealed discussions about the attack between officials in central command and those in the field. But these do not clearly implicate Mr Assad or his entourage.
And while experts in the US say the most likely chemical agent to have been used in the attack was the nerve gas sarin, scientific evidence that could prove this is still incomplete.
Intelligence officials said they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Mr Assad’s supplies of chemical weapons, and that he could have moved them in recent days. That lack of certainty means a possible series of US cruise missile strikes aimed at crippling Mr Assad’s military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly incident.
In the past six months, with shifting front lines in the civil war and sketchy intelligence coming out of Syria, American and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies.
Ideally, the White House is looking for intelligence that links the attack directly to Mr Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military decided to use chemical weapons without authorisation.
The US has devoted only a few hundred operatives to the Syrian mission, with CIA and Pentagon resources stretched by counterterrorism missions in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as its missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ellen Branagh: Britain sends Typhoons to Cyprus as ‘prudent’ move
Six RAF Typhoon jets have been deployed to Cyprus to protect UK interests and sovereign bases “at a time of heightened tension in the wider region”, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed.
The jets were sent to Akrotiri in Cyprus yesterday as a “prudent and precautionary measure” and are not deploying to take part in military action against Syria, the MoD said.
A spokesman said: “We can confirm that as part of ongoing contingency planning, six RAF Typhoon interceptor fast jets are deploying to Akrotiri in Cyprus.
“This is purely a prudent and precautionary measure to ensure the protection of UK interests and the defence of our sovereign base areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region.
“This is a movement of defensive assets operating in an air-to-air role only.
“They are not deploying to take part in any military action against Syria.”
The Typhoons are fitted with advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, advanced short-range air-to-air missiles, and a Mauser cannon for close combat. The deployment comes after two Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft and one E3D Sentry airborne warning and control system command and control aircraft were sent to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus on Tuesday, the RAF said.
Cyprus’s sovereign base areas are said to provide a “strategic forward-mounting base” in a region important to the UK’s long-term national security interests.
There are about 2,500 military and UK civilian personnel serving on the bases, along with about 3,000 accompanying family members and dependants.
Two infantry battalions serve there – one provides security to UK defence assets and the other is a high-readiness reserve force.
A further 270 UK personnel are based in Nicosia on peacekeeping duties as part of UN forces in Cyprus.
The RAF’s four front-line Typhoon squadrons are based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and RAF Leuchars in Fife, and each squadron operates up to 15 aircraft.