WASHINGTON (AFP) – The White House prepared Thursday to issue a report accusing Syria’s government of waging chemical warfare, but faces a high burden of proof due to the hangover from botched Iraq war intelligence and disquiet in Congress.
The report is meant to bolster the case for a probable U.S. military intervention in response to a horrific gas attack in a Damascus suburb last week which killed hundreds of people.
The White House has promised the analysis this week, but though there were expectations it could be released Thursday, sources said it was not yet complete.
The release of the document will lack fanfare. Officials are expected to brief reporters in a conference call with alongside the release of the hard copy of the report.
That is a far cry from the dramatic presentation by then secretary of state Colin Powell in 2003 at the United Nations, when Washington made the case for war with Iraq.
President Barack Obama’s aides stress they envisage only a “limited” punitive action in Syria and dismiss comparisons with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the president built his political career on opposing.
But the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the discrediting of what was once deemed a “slam dunk” intelligence case for war are imposing a high burden of proof for the current administration.
Veteran national security analyst Anthony Cordesman termed the coming report the “most important single document in a decade” for the U.S. government.
He said that the administration “faces the dilemma that it must limit what it says to protect U.S. intelligence sources and methods.
“It also, however, faces the reality that the U.S. lost the credibility to argue from authority and on the basis of its reputation more than ten years ago,” Cordesman said a Center for Strategic and International Studies briefing paper.
Some reports this week suggested that the U.S. assessment would include communications intercepts and other data from inside Syria.
But administration sources are downplaying expectations, saying the public analysis will mirror the case already made by Washington, which they consider strong.
More detailed evidence may be included in the classified briefing to top U.S. lawmakers due to take place later Thursday.
The White House says there is no doubt that an attack took place — citing appalling footage of dead and wounded victims on television and social media and witness and medical reports.
It says only Syrian government forces have access to chemical weapons stocks and the rockets needed to deliver them.
“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these (attacks) out,” Obama told PBS television Wednesday.
But officials refuse to publicly address the notion that a rogue military officer, or another actor, could have ordered the attack outwith the official Syrian chain of command.
“The commander-in-chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership … even if he’s not the one that pushes the button or said, ‘Go,’ on this,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman.