The US Intelligence Assessment on Syria and the Next Steps in the National Debate

The United States government today released, along with the statement of Secretary of State John Kerry, the unclassified assessment of the US intelligence community on Syria's use of chemical weapons. The assessment concludes with a high degree of confidence (the highest level of confidence available short of total confirmation - which you can't get on basically anything) that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus. The assessment was released along with a map of the attacks, showing that attacks were launched from regime controlled areas, affecting areas either controlled by the opposition or in dispute.

The most stunning piece of information from Kerry's speech as well as the intelligence assessment was the number of people killed in the attack - now pegged at at least 1429, including at least 426 children.

The president said that he hasn't made a final decision as to whether to order a military strike. But if he does move that way, I want us to remember some important facts:

First, if you read through the unclassified intelligence assessment, you will see that it's clear as day that the Syrian government carried out the attacks. The Syrian chain of command was responsible, which is indicated by both the circumstances of where the attacks were launched from and where they were targeted, as well as communications intercepts. From the report:
We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.
Alan Grayson was on MSNBC this morning asking the administration to present conclusive proof that not just the regime but Assad himself personally ordered the attack. This, of course, amounts to a stalling tactic. If the attack did not receive the ascent of President Assad, he would be out there launching an investigation into who did - or if he knew, punishing that person - and he definitely would not be holding up the UN inspectors for as long as he did. Grayson may also be damning Assad with faint praise - after all, should a leader who cannot absolutely control chemical weapons under his command be allowed to continue to have that capacity?

Second, I would be careful about separating believing the intelligence and backing an attack. Though I am increasingly convinced that the President will do the right thing should he launch a limited air strike, I am sympathetic to the arguments of those who oppose intervention. Let us do recognize though that one may oppose intervention even if they understand and believe the assessment of the intelligence community. If you are anti-intervention, do not feel pressure to reject the facts (the assessment) just so that the non-intervention argument will be strengthened.

By the other side of the same coin, if you are pro-intervention, it is important to understand that there are factors beyond the intelligence assessment to consider - such as possible impacts, intended and unintended consequences, matters of principle (pacific), diplomatic efforts, etc.

Sec. Kerry himself said today that there is no ultimate military solution in Syria - and that the ultimate solution must be a negotiated, diplomatic one. He and President Obama further insisted that any military action will be short, precise, and without boots on the ground in Syria. So with or without a military strike, the United States, by policy, has indicated the necessity for high stakes diplomacy. Just because there is no ultimate military solution to the sectarian conflict in Syria does not mean that the United States and its allies stand by and see a severe breach of the international norm and agreement in chemical weapons use that kills thousands. Nor is a possible military strike preclude the possibility of future (or concurrent) diplomacy.

This president and his administration has done everything possible up to this point to avoid getting involved in Syria militarily, against the drum beats of the war mongers. Even now, he has shown considerable restraint. But it is important to remember that Barack Obama was not elected on the promise of complete and total pacifism; he was elected on the promise of careful consideration, judgment and letting the facts speak for themselves.

Whatever the president does, I am sure his critics will be many and the criticisms will be far and wide. As has been noted, he has no good options here. But as we debate this going forward, I want us to understand the complexity of the issue, drop the righteousness (either side - no one should take the idea of dropping bombs lightly just as no one should make light of the massacre from the chemical weapons), and do something the pundits won't do - let's keep it on the facts, not the conjectures and the rhetoric.

Thank you.

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