U.S. intercepted attack preparations, cover-up
WASHINGTON - A U.S. intelligence assessment of last week's suspected chemical-weapons attack near Damascus cites intercepted communications that allegedly showed Syrian government officials making preparations to use chemical weapons three days before the attack and then launching efforts afterward to cover it up.
The assessment released Friday by the White House asserts that U.S. officials tracked the actual firing of chemical munitions, which were launched by artillery batteries from government-held positions and landed in rebel-held or contested neighborhoods in suburbs east of the capital.
The high civilian death toll - U.S. officials believe the attack killed 1,429 people - apparently triggered a panic inside the Syrian regime, U.S. intelligence officials concluded. In an intercepted message, a senior Syrian official was overheard confirming that government troops had launched the Aug. 21 attack, and expressing concern that a visiting team of U.N. weapons inspectors would find out about it, the document stated.
A Syrian chemical-weapons team was "directed to cease operations," the U.S. assessment said. Soon afterward, Syrian troops began an intensified barrage on the same neighborhood using conventional artillery in an apparent effort to cover up the evidence.
"In the 24-hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate four times higher than the ten proceeding days," the four-page document stated.
The assessment was by far the most detailed depiction of the intelligence gathered by Western government about the nature of attack and why American officials believe the Assad government was responsible. While it did not present evidence showing complicity by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle, it asserts "with high confidence" that government forces were behind the attack.