Intercepted Phone Calls Convinced U.S. that Assad Used Nerve Gas

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 28 2013 10:23 AM

The Intercepted Phone Calls that Convinced Obama that Syria Used Nerve Gas

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An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube by the Local Committee of Arbeen on August 21, 2013 allegedly shows Syrians covering a mass grave containing bodies of victims that Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta and Zamalka, on the outskirts of Damascus

Photo by DSK/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy has the scoop on why the Obama administration says it's "undeniable" that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government launched a massive chemical attack that killed hundreds of Syrians last week:

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they're certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.
But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? "It's unclear where control lies," one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?"

Those intercepted calls, combined with the accounts from local doctors on the ground and the difficult-to-watch video evidence that has emerged since, are considered definitive proof in the eyes of U.S. intelligence officials. What's not so clear, however, is why Assad and/or other Syrian officials would have chosen to launch the attack when and where they did. "We don't know exactly why it happened," another unnamed intelligence official told FP. "We just know it was pretty fucking stupid." More over at The Cable.

This post was updated with additional information.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.