BERLIN — Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeatedly rejected requests from his field commanders for approval to use chemical weapons, according to a report this weekend in a German newspaper.
The report in Bild am Sonntag, which is a widely read and influential national Sunday newspaper, reported that the head of the German Foreign Intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler, last week told a select group of German lawmakers that intercepted communications had convinced German intelligence officials that Assad did not order or approve what is believed to be a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people in Damascus’ eastern suburbs.
The Obama administration has blamed the attack on Assad. The evidence against Assad was described over the weekend as common sense by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on CNN’s "State of the Union."
“The material was used in the eastern suburbs of Damascus that have been controlled by the opposition for some time,” he said. “It was delivered by rockets, rockets that we know the Assad regime has, and we have no indication that the opposition has.”
Russia has questioned that logic, announcing last week that in July it filed a 100-page long “technical and scientific” report on an alleged March 19 chemical weapons attack on a suburb of Aleppo that it says implicates rebel fighters.
A U.N. team dispatched to Syria to investigate the March 19 attack was sent to the scene of the Aug. 21 incident. The samples it collected are currently being analyzed in Europe at labs certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international agency that monitors compliance with chemical weapons bans.
The German intelligence briefing to lawmakers described by Bild am Sonntag fits neither narrative precisely. The newspaper’s article said that on numerous occasions in recent months, the German intelligence ship named Oker, which is off the Syrian coast, has intercepted communications indicating that field officers have contacted the Syrian presidential palace seeking permission to use chemical weapons and have been turned down.
The article added that German intelligence does not believe Assad sanctioned the alleged attack on August 21.
Last week, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, also citing a briefing for German legislators, said that the Oker had intercepted a phone call between a commander from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and an official at an unidentified Iranian embassy saying that Assad had ordered the Aug. 21 chemical attack out of anger. The Hezbollah commander called the attack a “huge mistake,” Der Spiegel said. It was not clear if the two news accounts were based on the same or different briefings.
Assad told American journalist Charlie Rose in an interview to be broadcast in its entirety Monday night on PBS that “there has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people.”
Even if Assad didn’t approve the use of chemical weapons, he’d likely be held responsible for its use by a rogue unit within Syria’s security forces.
David Butter, a Syria expert with the British think tank Chatham House, called the German intelligence “an interesting distraction, but nothing more right now.”
“To build a case that Assad had no role in the use of chemical weapons, we’d need a lot more evidence,” he said. “And, of course, as head of state, if a war crime has been committed by his regime, he is ultimately responsible.”
The German intelligence report would seem to fit the European mood of the moment, however, that U.S. military action must wait for the results of the U.N. investigation. “What happened is all very murky,” Butler said. “Let’s wait for the United Nations investigation before talking about the next step.”
European foreign ministers on Saturday issued a statement calling the Aug. 21 attack a “war crime,” but said nothing should be done without U.N. approval. New opinion polls over the weekend in France, Germany and Great Britain showed strong disapproval of military action in Syria. The British poll, done for The Sunday Telegraph, indicated only 19 percent of the population backs the idea of military action with the United States, while 63 percent oppose it. The polls in France and Germany showed similar margins of opposition.
Meanwhile, a new tabulation of the dead from the Aug. 21 incident raised more questions about Obama administration officials’ account of what took place.
The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, an anti-Assad group, said that it had been able to document 678 dead from the attacks, including 106 children and 157 women. The report said 51 of the dead, or 7 percent, were fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the designation used to describe rebels that are affiliated with the Supreme Military Council, which the U.S. backs.
The report said that the organization was certain that more than 1,600 died in the attack, but that it had not been able to confirm the higher number.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said 1,429 people died Aug. 21, included 426 children, but has not said how the United States obtained the figures. Other estimates have ranged from a low of “at least 281” by the French government to 502, including “tens” of rebel fighters and about 100 children, by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that tracks violence in Syria.