WASHINGTON — The British say that there have been 14 Syrian chemical attacks since 2012 and that the last, the most horrific, killed “at least 350” Syrian civilians. The Americans count fewer attacks, but put a stunningly higher, quite precise number on the casualties: 1,429.
The French argue that only President Bashar Assad of Syria and the closest members of his clan can order chemical attacks; the Americans say that, at least in the Aug. 21 attack that led President Barack Obama to call for military action, it is unclear where the orders came from. In classified briefings they are far more specific, saying that the commander of Syria’s infamous Unit 450, which controls its chemical weapons, gave the order.
In short, the differences in intelligence estimates among the United States and its closest allies are considerable but, in their view, not very significant. All come to the same bottom line: All the attacks involved sarin gas, only the Assad government had control over the chemical agents, and, whether they were premeditated or the result of “sloppiness,” as one senior American official put it, the results were devastating.
As they emerge from unclassified and classified briefings, members of Congress say the Obama administration’s case against the Assad government is convincing and leaves them with little doubt that it was responsible for the attacks. Even those most conscious of the intelligence errors that preceded the invasion of Iraq concede that this case is different. Iraq was about assessing whether weapons existed, they say, while Syria is all about who used them, and whether a military strike would prevent — or encourage — their use again.
“More and more members of Congress are finding the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons compelling,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has been briefed on the administration’s evidence and is skeptical about whether the United States should intervene without the help of traditional allies. “The question now is, what should our response be?”
Still, the public way that the Americans, French, British and Israelis have felt it necessary to publish their evidence — even where it differs — underscores the huge post-Iraq sensitivities involved in justifying the need for new military involvement in the Mideast. And until the most recent gas attack in Syria, reliable assessments of the use of chemical weapons proved difficult.