The not-so-secret war in Syria

Post updated, most recently on 23 August

Below, a quick collection of recent articles on covert action and intelligence collection in and against Syria, for reference. Feel free to suggest others.

Martin Chulov and Ewen MacAskill in the Guardian in June, on Saudi Arabia bankrolling rebels and CIA officers in Homs:

Saudi officials are preparing to pay the salaries of the Free Syrian Army as a means of encouraging mass defections from the military and increasing pressure on the Assad regime … The plan centres on paying the FSA in either US dollars or euros, meaning their salaries would be restored to their pre-revolution levels, or possibly increased.

Officials in the Saudi capital embraced the idea when it was put to them by Arab officials in May, according to sources in three Arab states, around the same time that weapons started to flow across the southern Turkish border into the hands of Free Syria Army leaders.

Turkey has also allowed the establishment of a command centre in Istanbul which is co-ordinating supply lines in consultation with FSA leaders inside Syria. The centre is believed to be staffed by up to 22 people, most of them Syrian nationals.

Diplomatic sources have told the Guardian two US intelligence officers were in Syria’s third city of Homs between December and early February, trying to establish command and control within rebel ranks.

Eric Schmitt in the NYT in June, on CIA officers helping to allocate weapons:

The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said … By helping to vet rebel groups, American intelligence operatives in Turkey hope to learn more about a growing, changing opposition network inside of Syria and to establish new ties. “C.I.A. officers are there and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people,” said one Arab intelligence official who is briefed regularly by American counterparts.

Barbara Starr for CNN in June, on US-Jordan cooperation:

U.S. special forces are training and advising Jordanian troops on a range of specific military tasks they might need to undertake if unrest in Syria spills over into Jordan or poses a threat to that country, three Defense Department officials told CNN. The officials declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the training. Jordanian officials also are refusing to publicly confirm details, but a senior Middle Eastern government official also confirmed details to CNN.

The U.S. has been training in Jordan using mainly special operations forces under a program called Joint Combined Exchange Training, which sends troops overseas to train foreign soldiers and units in specific missions. Jordan’s major security concern is that if the Syrian regime were to suddenly collapse, then it would face unrest on its northern border, as well as the possibility of large refugee flows, weapons smuggling into Jordan, and potential disarray in Syria’s chemical and biological weapons complex. Jordan also is considering how and where to potentially set up humanitarian assistance bases inside its borders, another matter the U.S. is advising it on.

Ruth Sherlock in the Telegraph in July, on the FSA’s own preparations regarding chemical weapons:

“We have a group just to deal with chemical weapons. They are already trained to secure sites,” said Gen Adnan Silou, the most senior ranking member of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to defect and join the FSA.Until 2008 Gen Silou was charged with the task of drafting emergency response plans should any of Syria’s terrifying array of weapons fall out of the government’s control.Working around Damascus and Latakia he trained thousands of troops in how to secure what analysts believe are the largest chemical weapons stores in the world, consisting principally of sarin, mustard gas and cyanide.“We trained them in securing stores, in reconnaissance of possible threats, in how to purge supplies and in treatment should Syria come under attack a chemical or biological attack,” said Silou.

Regan Docherty and Amena Bakr for Reuters in July, on Turkey’s command centre in Adana, the use of Russian weaponry, and ubiquitous Qatar’s role:

Turkey has set up a secret base with allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to direct vital military and communications aid to Syria’s rebels from a city  near the border … The centre in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 100 km (60 miles) from the Syrian border, was set up after Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Saud visited Turkey and requested it, a source in the Gulf said. The Turks liked the idea of having the base in Adana so that they could supervise its operations, he added … Former officials said there is reason to believe the Turks stepped up their support for anti-Assad forces after Syria shot down a Turkish plane which had made several passes over border areas.

“All weaponry is Russian. The obvious reason is that these guys (the Syrian rebels) are trained to use Russian weapons, also because the Americans don’t want their hands on it. All weapons are from the black market. The other way they get weapons is to steal them from the Syrian army. They raid weapons stores.”

Sources in Qatar said the Gulf state is providing training and supplies to the Syrian rebels. “The Qataris mobilized their special forces team two weeks ago. Their remit is to train and help logistically, not to fight,” said a Doha-based source with ties to the FSA.

Ken Dilanian in the LA Times in July, on the CIA’s light footprint in Syria (note contrast with the Guardian’s claims about CIA officers in Homs, a warzone):

 CIA officers largely have avoided entering Syria or traveling to the battle zones since February, when the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was shuttered for security reasons after threats by groups allied with the Assad government …  Some current and former officials said the dearth of American intelligence agents in Syria stemmed from the administration’s unwillingness to risk having a CIA officer captured or wounded with little hope of rescue. They also spoke of a hypersensitivity in Congress and among the public to the prospect of U.S. casualties, citing the criticism leveled at the CIA after seven officers were killed by a double agent-turned-suicide bomber in Khowst, Afghanistan, in December 2009

A few CIA officers in recent weeks have met with opposition leaders in Turkey near the Syrian border, officials said. They communicate by secure links with paid informers in Syria.

Greg Miller and Joby Warrick in the Washington Post in July, making a similar point:

U.S. spy agencies have expanded their efforts to gather intelligence on rebel forces and Assad’s regime in recent months, but they are still largely confined to monitoring intercepted communications and observing the conflict from a distance, officials said.

Interviews with U.S. and foreign intelligence officials revealed that the CIA has been unable to establish a presence in Syria, in contrast with the agency’s prominent role gathering intelligence from inside Egypt and Libya during revolts in those countries … With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies.

Reuters in July, on Obama’s presidential “finding” authorising help for the rebels:

Reuters has learned that the White House has crafted a presidential directive, called a “finding,” that would authorize greater covert assistance for the rebels, while still stopping short of arming them. … It is not clear whether Obama has signed the document, and U.S. officials declined to comment on the finding, which is a highly classified authorization for covert activity. But in recent days, the Obama administration has signalled publicly it plans more help for the rebels.

Thomas Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, is a meticulous policy planner who asks for exhaustive studies of any issue before drawing conclusions, aides say privately. Syria is no exception. He has kept his staff busy for months reviewing Syria policy options, should the president ask for a list of alternatives. One U.S. government source said the new presidential finding had been on Donilon’s desk for quite some time without further action.


Update. It occurs to me to add a passage from Colonel Richard Kemp’s contribution (PDF) to last week’s RUSI briefing on Syria (Kemp was commander of British forces in Afghanistan, and also worked at the Joint Intelligence Committee):

There have been reports in the media of British, French and American Special Forces already operating inside Syria. This would certainly make sense, and it is highly likely that some Western Special Forces and intelligence resources have been in Syria for a considerable time. (p.7)

Update 2. On 1 August, Reuters‘ Mark Hosenball reports on the presidential finding mentioned above:

President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, sources familiar with the matter said … A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center [see above] operated by Turkey and its allies.

Indications are that U.S. agencies have not been involved in providing weapons to Assad’s opponents. In order to do so, Obama would have to approve a supplement, known as a “memorandum of notification, to his initial broad intelligence finding … Further such memoranda would have to be signed by Obama to authorize other specific clandestine operations to support Syrian rebels.

The State Department said on Wednesday the U.S. government had set aside a total of $25 million for “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian opposition. A U.S. official said that was mostly for communications equipment, including encrypted radios.

Update 3: Ruth Sherlock in The Telegraph (3 August) says Qatar and the FSA have fallen out:

But the FSA, dominated by defectors from the regime’s army, has fallen out with the SNC, whose leaders are in exile. It now has its own political front, the Syrian Support Group (SSG). This split has divided the revolution’s main international backers, with Saudi Arabia supporting the FSA and Qatar moving closer to the SNC and the Islamist militias …  At one point Saudi Arabia and Qatar were both funding the FSA, with the command centre receiving up to $3 million in cash every month. But the operative said the situation had changed. “Now we are not working with the Qataris because they made so many mistakes supporting other groups.”

Update 4: German newspaper Bild (19 August) says the Germans are where it’s at:

Agents from Germany’s foreign intelligence service (BND) are operating on ships off the coast with technology allowing them to observe troop movements 600 kilometres (400 miles) inside the country, said the Bild am Sonntag weekly … They pass their findings onto US and British officers who then supply the rebels with the information, Bild said.

The paper quoted an unnamed US official as saying that “no Western intelligence service has such good sources inside Syria” as Germany’s BND. German agents are also active in the Syrian conflict from the NATO base in the Turkish city of Adana, according to Bild. “We can be proud of the significant contribution we are making to the fall of the Assad regime,” a BND official told Bild.

Update 5: Actually, says the Sunday Times (19 August), it’s all about the Brits:

British intelligence on Syrian troop movements has enabled rebels to launch devastating attacks, including an ambush on a column of 40 army tanks. The [Syrian opposition] official said the British authorities “know about and approve 100%” signals intelligence from their Cyprus bases being passed through Turkey to the rebel troops of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). “British intelligence is observing things closely from Cyprus. It’s very useful because they find out a great deal … The British are giving the information to the Turks and the Americans and we are getting it from the Turks … The British monitor communications about movements of the government army and we got information about reinforcements being on their way to Aleppo. We hit at the government troops in Idlib and Saraqib [southwest of Aleppo], with success,” the official said.

Britain has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus at Dhekelia and Akrotiri. They draw intelligence from the airwaves for GCHQ, Britain’s listening post in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The opposition official said rebel forces in Aleppo had also received US satellite imagery, which the Turks had passed on from the CIA. “We’ve had access to it for more than a month now. What the Turks give us is limited but it’s made a difference in Aleppo,” the official said.

Update 6: The Kuwait News Agency (23 August) says France, presumably eager not to be left out of this pan-European festival of spooks, is running a field hospital:

France, for some time now, has been supplying opposition fighters with logistical aid, including communications equipment, intelligence and also medical supplies and humanitarian aid … The French have also set up a military-run field hospital on the Syrian-Jordanian border and are treating wounded rebel fighters and refugees fleeing across the border from Syria.


2 responses to “The not-so-secret war in Syria

  1. I see they didn’t let the facts spoil a good story…

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