Intercepted call bolsters Syrian chemical-weapons charge, Germans say

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 4, 2013 

— German intelligence intercepted a phone call between a Hezbollah commander and an unidentified official at an Iranian embassy that provided evidence that the Syrian government was behind the alleged Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack, a German newsmagazine has reported.

Tuesday’s report was based on a classified briefing that German Foreign Intelligence Chief Gerhard Schindler gave selected German lawmakers Monday, according to the magazine, Der Spiegel.

A senior U.S. official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the information is classified, said the intercepted call wasn’t the same communication that American officials had cited to bolster their case that Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for the attack.

“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,” said a U.S. assessment released last week.

According to Der Spiegel, one of the parties in the intercepted phone call was a “high-ranking member of Hezbollah,” the militant Lebanese movement that’s sent fighters to support the Assad government. That Hezbollah member told the Iranian that “Assad had lost his temper and committed a huge mistake by giving the order for the poison gas use," according to the magazine’s account.

The U.S. intelligence assessment reached a similar conclusion, finding that the alleged use of chemical weapons may have been in part because of “the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus.”

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was asked Wednesday at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee whether the Obama administration would make public transcripts of any intercepted communication, he demurred, saying that information probably was classified.

According to Der Spiegel, the call was intercepted by the German naval ship Oker, which is known to gather intelligence and to be off the coast of Syria.

The motivation for the chemical weapons attack is one of the unknowns that surround what took place in the Ghouta region of Damascus province. Those who are skeptical of Assad’s responsibility have noted that Syrian government forces had been on the offensive recently and had succeeded in pushing the rebels out of some areas the insurgents had long held.

But the German account and the American one suggest that the inability of Assad’s regime to take control of the eastern Damascus suburbs after months of attempts drove a decision to use chemical weapons.

An unclassified French intelligence summary also suggested that the failure to unseat the rebels lay behind the Aug. 21 attack. It called the use of chemical weapons followed by a ground offensive “a classic tactical scheme” consistent with Syrian military doctrine.

Citing “credible intelligence from several partners,” the French summary said preparations for the attack were detected “in the days preceding Aug. 21.” The United States also has said that preparations were detected.

One point on which the French and American summaries differ is the number of people who died. The French said at least 281 people were killed, while the United States said the death toll was 1,429.

The French summary said that country’s intelligence services had reached the 281 figure by reviewing 47 videos of what took place “district by district” and counting the bodies. It said, however, that the higher number was consistent with counting models for a chemical attack on the affected areas.

U.S. officials haven’t said how they obtained their estimate of the deaths.

According to Der Spiegel, the Germans – like the Americans, the British and the French – have concluded that the Syrian rebels don’t have a significant amount of chemical weapons and aren’t known to possess the means to mount such an attack themselves.

The German account goes further than others that have been released recently in providing details of Assad’s state of mind that might have played a role in the motivation for launching a chemical attack, noting that Assad sees himself embroiled “in a crucial battle for Damascus.”

It also said Assad’s forces had used a highly diluted chemical agent in previous attacks on rebels and that the high death count Aug. 21 might have been the result of “errors made in the mixing of the gas” that made it “much more potent than anticipated.”

That would be consistent with a suggestion from an Israeli official, cited by The New York Times, that the attack was “an operational mistake.”

The French summary said that whatever agent had been used, it was in high concentration. The French said that based on information from one hospital, death was immediate for 50 percent of the people exposed.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized how the French determined the death toll by reviewing the videos.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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