Tag Archives: covert action Syria

Getting Rid of the Hornet’s Nest: Syria

syria-before-after

Tensions between Russia and the United States are coming to a head over the civil war in Syria. Washington has suspended bilateral talks with Russia to end the five-year old war. Moscow has suspended an agreement to destroy 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium that was reached during the year 2000, using especially harsh rhetoric. Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces—with the backing of Russian airpower—are continuing to mount a fierce attack on the partially rebel-held city of Aleppo with Washington seemingly powerless to influence events on the ground….Among the four options that may be under consideration [in the United States] are a no-fly-zone, safe zones, attacking the Syrian air force and arming the Syrian rebels with additional weaponry. But each option carries with it significant risk of escalation or blowback.
While the United States has the capability to defeat Russian and Syrian regime air forces and air defenses, which is necessary to establish a no-fly zone or safe-zone, or to destroy the regime’s airpower, there are several risks from a legal and military standpoint. The legal problem comes from the fact that the United States is not technically at war with the Syria, nor is there a UN resolution authorizing American forces to operate inside that nation… [On the contrary] Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime.

A no-fly zone or safe zone would require U.S. combat aircraft to intercept and possibly shoot down Russian and Syrian warplanes entering into the area designated by Washington and its allies…. [But] It is highly unlikely that any U.S. President would be willing to risk war against a nuclear-armed power with only four months left in office in a conflict with few—if any—vital American interests at stake. The Russians know that and might not be willing to back down in the event of an air-to-air confrontation with American forces because too much national prestige—and even Mr. Putin’s personal prestige—would be on the line. Thus, such an encounter could escalate in unpredictable ways…

A worse option still would be for the U.S. military to attack the Syrian air force and its bases directly since it would an overt act of war against Syria—even more so than a no-fly or safe zone. As Secretary Kerry pointed out, without a U.N. Security Council resolution, the United States does not have legal grounds to go to war. But moreover, the military difficulties with directly attacking Syrian forces are more problematic.

The United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps could easily annihilate Syrian and even Russian air defenses—and airpower—inside Syria. Moscow—even with the fearsome capabilities of its S-400 air and missile defense system—is not able to defeat the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors, which are able to fly inside zones protected by those system and defeat them. In fact, defeating advanced air defenses is one of the Raptor’s primary missions. Nor would Russian Su-30SM or Su-35S Flankers survive long against the Raptor, which was specifically designed to counter advanced next-generation Soviet fighters that ultimately never materialized….

[But] Russia might not limit its retaliation to just American and NATO forces in Syria. Given Moscow’s arsenal of Kaliber-NK cruise missiles and long-range bombers and submarines, the Kremlin has options to strike back across a huge geographic range. It is not outside realm of the possible that Russia would hit back at U.S. bases in Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Turkey using long-range precision-guided cruise missiles. The Russian Black Sea fleet and the Caspian Sea flotilla can easily hit such targets. Then there is Moscow’s formidable bomber fleet which can target the continental United States itself….

It might be prudent to exercise restraint before launching a new war—against a nuclear-armed power—that the American people don’t necessarily want to fight. That’s especially true in a conflict where the lines are blurry and there are no clear-cut good guys—where even so-called “moderate” rebels backed by the U.S. government are beheading children.  Under such circumstances, the best policy for the United States might simply be to leave well enough alone—there is simply no need to stick our fingers into yet another hornet’s nest.

Excerpts from Dave Majumdar, Why the United States Should Exercise Restraint Before Launching A New War in Syria, National Interest, Oct. 3, 2016

The Genius Puppetry behind the Syrian War

Puppet hands

By most accounts, America’s efforts to covertly train and supply moderate rebels in Syria aren’t going so well. Apart from the obvious (Assad is still firmly entrenched in power and continuing to receive ever-growing external support),The New York Times recently reported that some arms provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia haven’t quite reached their intended targets. According to the report, some individuals in Jordan’s intelligence bureau — ostensibly partnering to funnel weapons to Assad’s opponents — stole weapons destined for U.S.-backed rebels and instead sold them on the black market…..

American involvement in Syria comes in two main flavors. The first is a limited covert operation to support moderate rebels in their quest to unseat Assad. The second is an overt military campaign to combat ISIL. .

Deliberations over what the United States ought to do militarily in Syria began as early as 2012. The first rebels trained, funded, and armed by the CIA — a small “50-man cell” of fighters — were reported to have arrived in the fall of 2013, a few months after Obama gave the green light. Since then, America’s CIA covert operation against the Syrian regime, known as Timber Sycamore, has grown substantially. In 2014, reports suggested that the United States was “ramping up” its support to the rebels through the provision of TOW anti-tank guided missiles. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that America wasn’t acting alone. Timber Sycamore had become a joint effort with Saudi Arabia: The Saudis provided cash and arms, while the Americans provided training.

To date, efforts to replace Assad or bring him to the negotiating table haven’t succeeded….[and]America’s efforts to replace Assad are further complicated by a parallel but distinct effort to degrade and destroy ISIL…

Covert intervention allows major powers to “back stage” their role. As a result, any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the “audience” (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate. “Back-staging” outside meddling can protect the “front stage” performance of a localized war with limited geopolitical stakes and the potential for diplomatic resolution. The CIA’s Timber Sycamore program embodies this logic in key respects. By rejecting an overt and acknowledged relationship with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama White House has retained greater flexibility to tweak the program as the war evolves. Even relatively porous secrecy may help to evade the daily media reporting, public justifications, and regular congressional involvement that so often accompany overt programs. Moreover, by embracing a “back stage” role in Syria, the United States has avoided a naked geopolitical challenge to other states. Doing so reduces the chances of a public diplomatic crisis should American-supplied weaponry advertently or inadvertently be used in a clash with, say, Iranian personnel in Syria. Russia’s “front stage” air intervention and American overt air strikes against ISIL only strengthens this limited war logic. With Russian and American pilots in the skies, keeping the American program against Russia’s ally in Damascus low-profile makes U.S.-Russian crisis prevention measures easier.

Excerpts from AUSTIN CARSON AND MICHAEL POZNANSKY, THE LOGIC FOR (SHODDY) U.S. COVERT ACTION IN SYRIA, from War on the Rocks, July 21, 2016

Weapons Supply to Syria: The Role of CIA and Co.

[Who to Whom]

Qatar, which has taken a lead in arming the Syrian opposition, is coordinating with the CIA and has tightened control of the arms flow to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters, according to rebels and officials familiar with the operation.  With Britain and France discussing lifting an EU ban on arming the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, Western countries are concerned about making sure no arms end up in the hands of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged support for al Qaeda and which Washington considers a terrorist group.

Rebel fighters in Syria say that in recent months the system for distributing arms has become more centralized, with arms being delivered through opposition National Coalition’s General Command, led by Selim Idriss, a general who defected to the opposition and is a favorite of Washington.

Qatar mostly sends arms to rebels operating in the north of Syria, while Saudi Arabia, another rich Gulf Arab kingdom, sends weapons to fighters operating in the south, several rebel commanders said….”Before the Coalition was formed they were going through liaison offices and other military and civil formations. That was at the beginning. Now it is different – it is all going through the Coalition and the military command.”  Shipments of weapons to Syrian rebels were curbed last year when Washington raised concerns that arms were falling into the hands of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Today, Qatari shipments have resumed with tighter controls exerted from the palace of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in consultation with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said a senior Qatari security official. “There’s an operations room in the Emir’s diwan (office complex), with representatives from every ministry sitting in that room, deciding how much money to allocate for Syria’s aid,” the Qatari official said.  “There’s a lot of consultation with the CIA, and they help Qatar with buying and moving the weapons into Syria, but just as consultants,” he said. The CIA declined to comment.  Rebel commanders contacted by Reuters said they submit their lists of needs to the General Command led by Idriss, which forwards the requests to Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

One Western source involved in the process said the new system of control is not foolproof: sometimes weapons sent in by Qatar do in fact reach hardline groups.Several rebel commanders said they believed wealthy Kuwaiti and Saudi individuals were also sending weapons and money to rebel fighters outside the National Coalition’s distribution channel.  “They usually ask for a video proving that an attack took place with the name of the brigade that did it. Sometimes they ask for a statement expressing gratitude,” said a rebel commander in Damascus.  He said the Saudis and Qataris also occasionally send weapons into each other’s territory, bypassing normal controls. “Sometimes the Qataris manage to send stuff to the southern part and the Saudis to the northern side. When they do so, they send it to brigades that are not part of the military command.”

According to the Qatari official, weapons supplied included small arms including AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades and ammunition. Qatar also provides instructions on battlefield techniques such as how to rig weapons on vehicles.

[How?]

The weapons are purchased mainly from eastern Europe by arms brokers based in Britain and France, and are flown from Qatar to Ankara and then trucked to Syria, the Qatari source added.

[Timeframe]

Hugh Griffiths, a researcher on arms transfers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said 90 Qatari military air cargo flights were made to Turkey between 3 January 2012 and the end of April 2013.He suggested the Qataris had made no particular effort to disguise the nature of the cargo.  “The Qataris never announced the cargo as ‘humanitarian aid’ as pretence, they’ve always been more forthright in terms of their support in the form of military aid,” he said.

[Military Bases and Mercenaries]

The planes were Qatari air force aircraft flying from Al Udeid, a big air force base shared with the U.S. military.”This is quite unusual for arms deliveries intended for non-state actors in conflict zones, in the last 20 years or so the pattern has been to use private, commercial companies,” he said.

By Amena Bakr and Mariam Karouny, Qatar, allies tighten coordination of arms flows to Syria, Reuters, May 14, 2013

The Interests Behind the Covert Action in Syria; how to play the tribal card

The United States and its allies are moving in Syria toward a program of covert support for the rebels that, for better or worse, looks very much like what America and its friends did in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  The parallels are spooky. In Syria, as in Afghanistan, CIA officers are operating at the borders (in this case, mostly in Jordan and Turkey), helping Sunni insurgents improve their command and control and engaging in other activities. Weapons are coming from third parties (in Afghanistan, they came mostly from China and Egypt; in Syria, they’re mainly bought on the black market). And finally, a major financier for both insurgencies has been Saudi Arabia.  There’s even a colorful figure who links the two campaigns: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who as Saudi ambassador to Washington in the 1980s worked to finance and support the CIA in Afghanistan and who now, as chief of Saudi intelligence, is encouraging operations in Syria.

What does this historical comparison suggest? On the positive side, the Afghan mujahedeen won their war and eventually ousted the Russian-backed government. (Yes, that’s another eerie parallel.) On the negative, this CIA-backed victory opened the way for decades of chaos and jihadist extremism that are still menacing Afghanistan, its neighbors and even the United States.  The Obama administration, to its credit, recognizes the dangers ahead. That’s one reason Obama’s approach to this war has been cautious and, according to critics, half-hearted and ineffective. Because the way forward is so uncertain, the administration has been taking baby steps. But it’s the nature of these wars that a little involvement leads to more, and still more.  What does history teach us about such interventions that may be useful in the Syrian case? Here are several points to keep in mind as the covert war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ripens:

●The United States should be wary of supporting a Saudi strategy that inevitably is self-interested. The Saudis understandably would prefer that Sunnis who oppose autocratic rule should wage their fight far from the kingdom; Damascus is a far safer venue than Riyadh.

● The United States should be cautious about embracing the Sunni-vs.-Shiite dynamic of the Syrian war. Rage against Shiites and their Iranian patrons has been a useful prop for the United States and Israel in mobilizing Sunni opposition against Assad, who as an Alawite is seen as part of the Shiite crescent. But this is a poisonous and potentially ruinous sectarian battle, the kind that nearly destroyed Iraq and Lebanon and is now plunging Syria into the inferno. The Saudis want to fight Shiites, yes, and further from home than in Bahrain, or in Qatif in the kingdom’s eastern province. The United States should not endorse the sectarian element of this conflict.

●The United States should work hard (if secretly) to help the more sensible elements of the Syrian opposition and to limit the influence of extremists. This policy was ignored in Afghanistan, where the United States allowed Pakistan (aided by Saudi money) to back the fighters it liked — who turned out to be among the most extreme and dangerous. America is still trying to undo the mess caused by that exercise in realpolitik. Don’t do it again.

●Finally, the United States should subtly play the tribal card, which may be as crucial in Syria as it was in Iraq. The leaders of many Syrian tribes have sworn a blood oath of vengeance against Assad, and their power is one reason the engine of this insurgency is rural, conservative and Sunni. But Iraq showed that the tribal leaders can be the best bulwark against the growth of al-Qaeda and other extremists.

What’s scary about Syria is that al-Qaeda is already fighting there, in the hundreds. Cells in Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq are sending fighters across the Syria-Iraq border, with the jihadist pipeline now operating in reverse. Arab intelligence sources tell me that the Syrian opposition is laudably battling al-Qaeda’s influence: The opposition killed an al-Qaeda fighter named Walid Boustani, who tried to declare an “emirate” in a town near the Lebanese border; they also demolished a cell that raised al-Qaeda’s black flag near Bab al-Salameh, along the Turkish border. Sunni opposition fighters aren’t necessarily al-Qaeda fanatics, in other words.

The rebels fighting Assad deserve limited U.S. support, just as the anti-Soviet mujahedeen did. But be careful: This way lies chaos and extremism that can take a generation to undo if the United States and its allies aren’t prudent.

By David Ignatius,Syria’s eerie parallel to 1980s Afghanistan, Washington Post, Sept. 5, 2012

CIA Operations in Syria: the anonymous official leaks

The U.S. is ramping up its presence at Syria’s Turkish border, sending more spies and diplomats to help advise the rebel forces in their mismatched fight against the better armed Syrian regime, and to watch for possible al-Qaida infiltration of rebel ranks.  U.S. officials briefed on the plan said the modest surge in U.S. personnel in the past few weeks — estimated at fewer than a dozen people — has helped improve rebels’ political organizing skills as well as their military organization. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.

It’s part of a two-pronged effort by the Obama administration to bolster the rebels militarily without actually contributing weapons to the fight, and politically, to help them stave off internal power challenges by the well-organized and often better-funded hardline Islamic militants who have flowed into the country from Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.  The increased intelligence gathered is intended to help the White House decide whether its current policy of providing only non-lethal aid is enough to keep momentum building in the nearly 18-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Spokesmen for the Pentagon and White House declined to comment Thursday.

The diplomats and intelligence operatives from the CIA and other agencies stay outside war-torn Syria and meet with rebel leaders to help them organize their ranks, while also studying who makes up those ranks, how they are armed and whom they answer to, the officials say.  Information is also gathered from Syrian defectors and refugees as well as rebel troops, officials say.  “The model is to keep case officers away from conflict, and you collect through local forces,” said former CIA officer Reuel Gerecht, now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy group that focuses on terrorism.

The effort is concentrated on the Turkish border instead of the border with Jordan where many Syrian refugees are fleeing, a U.S. official said, because the traffic between Syria and Turkey is still far greater…. Syrian rebels have complained they are outgunned by the Syrian military and must rely on contributions in money and small arms from Gulf countries, and increasingly from hardline Islamic militants, including Iraq’s branch of al-Qaida.

US sends more spies, diplomats to help organize, train and study Syria’s rebel ranks, Associated Press, Sept. 6, 2012