Syria’s ongoing civil war has made the task of intelligence gathering particularly difficult. Getting specific information on the movement of weapons in conflict areas is not easy. In fact, as recently as 2011, during the intervention in Libya, NATO lost track of the number of Scud B missiles that country had, and were not able to secure the movement of weapons out of the country, despite having a presence on the ground. Similarly, U.S. concern that Saddam was going to launch a chemical attack using scud missiles from Iraq’s western deserts was a significant feature of the First Gulf War – but the threat went unrealized.
The U.S. claims its intelligence over Syria is better: “The U.S. government has good visibility into the chemical weapons program and we continue to monitor it” said a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson. U.S. intelligence has indeed focused its attention on the chemical weapons program and it has gathered valuable intel from defectors such as Major General Adnan Silou, the former head of the chemical weapons program. But the information is far from complete. The more common perception on Syria, including from Western officials is that “there are so many unknowns, so little information available that it becomes almost impossible to know what the regime may or may not be doing.”
Interestingly, the French newspaper Le Monde has provided additional information on the intelligence these reports are based on. It states that NATO and Turkish intelligence have confirmed suspicious activities around Syrian chemical weapons sites, but do not elaborate on the extent of the chemical weapons threat. In addition, U.S. and EU intelligence is partially based on information obtained from NATO surveillance flights, which are part of a broader operation in place since 2001 in the Mediterranean.
So what do we do with fragmentary and uncertain information?
The first step is to accept that nothing is clear in Syria at the moment. Although it is unlikely that Assad will resort to using his chemical weapons (and even less likely that the armed forces would universally comply with such orders should they come), we cannot be certain of it. As I argued in The Diplomat in July following the detection of movement of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, options for securing or destroying Syria’s chemical weapons do not look good. That is still the case. Indeed, last month U.S. military officials reportedly told President Obama that upwards of 75,000 U.S. troops would be needed to successfully secure Syrian’s chemical weapons stockpiles. At the moment, the only two ways we can respond to fears that Assad will resort to these weapons are preparation and establishing unequivocal clear red lines.