In Syria Covert Action with an Arab-Turkish Face

In Washington, the National Security Council is said to be preparing a “presidential finding”, an executive order authorising covert action [in Syria], as a policy option, but it is not clear whether the White House would take the risky step of signing it.  “It would leak in an instant and it would be radioactive,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in the region. “They [the Obama administration] have no idea of what to do now. They don’t want to be behind the ethnic cleansing of the Alawites, and it would have an explosive effect in Lebanon.” Assad is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect.

Britain and France both secretly sent special forces to train Libyan rebels last year but look unlikely to repeat the tactic in Syria. In the Libyan case, France supplied weapons, Britain non-lethal equipment. Military personnel from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar played the biggest outside role, and contingents from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan were involved.  Any outside involvement in Syria would also have “an Arab face”, said a former British intelligence officer.

The most significant outside player would probably be neighbouring Turkey, which already hosts the opposition Syrian National Council and allows a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose lightly armed fighters are in action against regime forces.  Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, said: “Whether the Turks are confident with that role, and how overt or covert it is, are key considerations.”  Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared he would push for a new initiative in the wake of the security council “fiasco”, and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davotuğlu, is due in Washington on Wedesday to discuss it with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, although no details have been disclosed.  Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Ankara’s preferred option would be regional support for limited Nato operations, including a “safe zone” for the rebels and a humanitarian corridor. “Turkey is beyond the point of no return,” he said. “It has burned its bridges. The longer Assad stays in Syria, the worse it is. Turkey has bet heavily on regime change.”

The Qataris are also in favour of some sort of limited military intervention. Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, said: “After the security council, the momentum is shifting towards talk of a buffer zone, or safe zone, and people here are talking seriously about it. But the Qataris would want the US and EU on board.”

The establishment of any kind of safe zone would involve the destruction of Syrian air defences and that would require US military participation, something Washington has ruled out for the time being. Although Hamid pointed out that similar declarations were made by the Obama administration before the Libyan intervention.

Meanwhile, foreign participation is likely to come in the form of covert backing for the FSA. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are rumoured to be financing the rebel force, but Baer said the FSA was having problems smuggling heavy and sophisticated arms into the country.  “They would like to get things like surface-to-air missiles,” he said, “but they are not being allowed across the borders in Turkey or Jordan. There is a lot of this stuff being sold at the arms markets in Libya.”

Hokayem predicted support for the FSA would now increase, but warned that a lack of co-ordination between the Gulf states risked leading to the rise of competing militias.  One analyst, Marc Lynch, commented: “I expect calls to mount for the provision of weapons to the Free Syrian Army, or for that to simply happen without fanfare … But nobody should be fooled into thinking that this is a panacea: arming the weaker side in a fully fledged, internationalised civil war is much more likely to produce a painful stalemate than a quick, decisive outcome.”

Jordan, whose intelligence service is considered the best in the Arab world, is watching developments in Syria through the eyes of tribes that straddle the border. It could also train and supply the anti-Assad rebels, but only if that mission were “subcontracted” to it by the far wealthier Gulf states.  Efforts to persuade the fractured Syrian opposition to close ranks are likely to take precedence over any clandestine activity, not least because an EU arms embargo bans any weapons supplies.

Ben Barry, an IISS military expert, said any assessment of the FSA would conclude that its most urgent need was for secure communications. Its fighters used mobile phones with Syrian numbers, which were easily monitored by the government, he said. Anti-tank weapons and night-vision goggles would help boost its performance against superior regime forces.  In past conflicts in the area, arms smuggling routes have often run through Kurdish areas, but Syrian Kurds have not allowed weapons throught to the opposition so far.

Ian Black and Julian Borger, Search for Syria strategy focuses on stiffening fragmented opposition, Guardian, Feb. 7, 2012

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