Germany has said in no uncertain terms that it will not participate in a strike on Syria without the backing of the United Nations Security Council. But the country's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), agrees with the US position which holds Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for the poison gas attacks near Damascus on Aug. 21. In a secret briefing to select lawmakers on Monday, BND head Gerhard Schindler said that while there is still no incontestable proof, analysis of the evidence at hand has led his intelligence service to believe that Assad's regime is to blame.
In the briefing, Schindler said that only the Assad regime is in possession of binary chemical weapons such as sarin. The BND believes that regime experts would be the only ones capable of manufacturing such weapons and deploying them with small missiles. The BND believes that such weapons had been used several times prior to the attack on Aug. 21, which is believed to have killed more than 1,400 people. Schindler said in the earlier attacks, however, the poison gas mixture was diluted, explaining the much lower death tolls in those assaults.
During his 30-minute presentation, Schindler offered up scenarios to explain why the Assad regime resorted to chemical weapons use, including, he said, the possibility that Assad sees himself involved in a crucial battle for Damascus . The city is besieged by rebel groups, with particular pressure coming from the east. Schindler believes it is possible that the regime ordered the use of poison gas as a way of intimidating the rebels. It could also be the case that errors were made in mixing the gas and it was much more potent than anticipated, he said.
The analysis presented by the BND is similar to that produced by the US. The American report holds that the poisonous gas was delivered via several small missiles that can be fired from mobile launch units. Casings found at the scenes of the gas attacks indicate that they were 107 mm rockets, which the regime possesses in large numbers. Schindler emphasized that the rebels are unable to carry out such a concerted attack.
An Additional Clue
Although the samples collected on site last week by United Nations weapons inspectors are still being analyzed, the BND is relatively certain that the chemical agent in question is sarin. Schindler noted that the BND intercepted a telephone call in which a doctor precisely described several of the symptoms patients suffered from -- and they were all consistent with exposure to sarin. The UN samples will likely offer the final proof, but analysis could take several more weeks.
Schindler also presented an additional clue, one that has not thus far been made public. He said that the BND listened in on a conversation between a high-ranking member of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which supports Assad and provides his regime with military assistance, and the Iranian Embassy. The Hezbollah functionary, Schindler reported, seems to have admitted that poison gas was used. He said that Assad lost his nerves and made a big mistake by ordering the chemical weapons attack.
The new information from the BND could become important in the coming days. Thus far the US has only noted that after the attack, intelligence agencies had intercepted internal government communications indicating concern about a possible UN inspection of the site. The telephone conversation intercepted by the BND could be an important piece in the puzzle currently being assembled by Western intelligence experts.
Schindler on Monday gave no indication as to the weight being given to the intercepted telephone call and said that his agency only shares intelligence directly with France. But it seems likely that the BND has also informed the US, where President Barack Obama is currently lobbying for Congressional support for a Syria strike. French President François Hollande is likewise under pressure from the opposition to get parliamentary approval prior to taking action in Syria.
German Surveillance in the Med
Despite its refusal to take part in a strike on Syria, Germany's military is nevertheless preparing for a possible escalation should the US and France take action. The German warship Sachsen is currently in the Mediterranean and is prepared to evacuate Germans and other foreigners from Lebanon should the need arise. An internal check is likewise underway to determine what assistance might be available to Jordan in the event of a chemical weapons attack from Syria.
Furthermore, a German ship outfitted with highly sensitive surveillance equipment is currently stationed off the coast of Syria. It is able to intercept telephone and other radio communications deep inside the war-torn country. The German military indicated on Monday that it would likely remain there even in the case of a US attack. Sources say, however, that the ship was unable to deliver useful intelligence related to the chemical weapons attacks due to the mountains between Damascus and the coastline.