09/05/2013 08:30 am ET Updated Sep 05, 2013

Syria Strike Plan Faces Shortcoming Over Unpredictability Of Assad's Behavior


BEIRUT -- Significant questions still remain about Bashar Assad's motivation for allegedly using chemical weapons, raising concerns about how much American officials can anticipate about the possible response of the Syrian regime to a U.S. attack, or trust that a limited strike plan will even work.

Intelligence assessments released by the United States and other nations into the apparent chemical weapons attack that took place in late August in the Damascus region of Ghouta outline a high degree of certainty about many elements of the attack, save one: why Assad would do it.

"The [Joint Intelligence Committee] had high confidence in all of its assessments except in relation to the regime’s precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time," read an unclassified version of a British intelligence report, released last week.

A declassified American intelligence summary doesn't go much further, saying that regime "frustration" with its inability to prevent rebel incursions into Damascus "may have contributed" to the decision.

The lack of clarity on this issue may not ultimately undermine the case against Assad, but it does raise substantial worries about the effectiveness of the strike -- and about Assad's possible response in the aftermath. U.S. officials have said that they do not intend to put American troops into the country, but in a Tuesday Senate hearing on the purpose and merit of military strikes against Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry declined to rule that option out, should Assad emerge more violent, or should the fighting spread dramatically.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pressed Kerry on the issue.

"Most people say Assad has acted very illogically: Why would he release chemical weapons on his own people when it brought the anger and enmity of the entire world?" Paul said. "So he's already acting illogically. Now we're going to deter him, and he's going to act in a rational manner?"

"It's more art than science," said Aki Peritz, a former CIA intelligence analyst who now works at the DC-based think tank Third Way, of the way the government analyzes the behaviors of foreign leaders. "In the government, we tried to make the best educated assessment of how a leader will behave. If we have access to a foreign leader's cell phone, we'll listen to that. We'll look at historical examples. The CIA also employs psychologists. In the end, they package it all together with a nice little bow and say, here it is. But it's never exactly right."

It certainly wasn't right in 2003, with dire consequences. The failure to detect that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction before the war in Iraq was a major shortcoming of the intelligence community, but almost as bad was the agency's -- and the Bush administration's -- flawed interpretations of the dictator's behavior in the months leading up to the war.

Most analysts and pundits assumed that if Saddam truly had nothing to hide in his WMD program, he would have let United Nations inspectors have free access, which he refused to do. But of course, after his ouster, Americans searching for an active WMD program came up empty.

The intelligence community suffered from a "lack of analytical imagination," concluded the Iraq Intelligence Commission, which investigated America's pre-war errors, in 2005. The community, it added, "failed even to consider the possibility that Saddam Hussein would decide to destroy his chemical and biological weapons."

After his detention, Saddam spent several weeks in conversation with George Piro, a special agent with the FBI tasked with making sense of the dictator's state of mind. Piro came away with a far different perception of the man than was commonly envisaged: Far from being a "madman," or a bully, Saddam was making choices that, while seemingly irrational by Western standards, were cautious and deliberative in his own context. Indeed, Saddam did have something to hide about his WMD arsenal, but it wasn't from the West -- it was from Iran.

"It was very important for him to project that [he had WMDs] because that was what kept him, in his mind, in power," Piro said in a 2008 interview with CBS. "That capability kept the Iranians away. It kept them from re-invading Iraq."

Saddam also badly miscalculated America's intentions, never fully believing until the last minute that the U.S. intended to conduct a regime-change operation, Piro added.

"He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 under Operation Desert Fox, which was a four-day aerial attack," he said.

Some recent reports suggest that Assad may be making similar calculations about Obama and his war plan, viewing it as likely to be little more than a "cosmetic attack."

Meanwhile, back in Washington, lawmakers supportive of an American plan to strike Syria continue to characterize Assad in formulaic terms: as an impetuous wildcard who responds to nothing but power, a schoolyard bully.

“If there is one principle that has proved true from time immemorial, it is that bullies and tyrants don’t respect weakness,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Even if the U.S. does manage to put together a coherent picture of Assad's motivations, former CIA analysts say, anticipating what he might do next is close to impossible.

"There is a big difference between having a pretty good sense of the priorities, objectives, and methods of a leader and what makes him tick, on one hand, and on the other hand being able to say with confidence anything predictive about what the same leader will do in a specific set of circumstances," said Paul Pillar, who ran counter-terrorism analysis at the agency in the 1990s. "There are simply too many variables, and there is such a thing as free will."