WASHINGTON — A secret CIA effort to vet rebel forces fighting the Syrian government and help U.S. allies steer arms toward factions likely to be sympathetic to American interests is fraught with dangers not seen in other recent clandestine operations, policy analysts said.
Central Intelligence Agency officersreportedly have been working from southern Turkey since March to advise Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates which elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) they should arm with weaponry that includes rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles.
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President Barack Obama’s administration has said it is not supplying arms to the rebels battling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad‘s regime. But as video and satellite imagery have documented the damage wrought in 15 months of fighting that has spiraled into a civil war, U.S. officials have ratcheted up their involvement.
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Barack Obama is fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya, and now wants to invade Iran and Syria. He is spending more on the US military than any previous president. If he serves for eight years as president, he will spend over $8 trillion on defense, including the hidden costs of the war economy. Fifty per cent of all US tax dollars is spent on the US military. The United States spends more on the military than the next 12 nations combined.
Earlier this spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a package of non-lethal aid, including communications equipment to the Syrian rebels, at a conference in Istanbul. She has repeatedly called for Assad to step down.
Yet even as the administration resists pressure to take military action — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has urged a U.S.-led air war to oust Assad — the U.S. has shown greater willingness to help proxies such as Saudi Arabia supply fighters inside Syria.
As the Wall Street Journal first reported, citing unnamed sources, “The U.S.’s stepped-up links with the FSA are also part of an effort to gain a better understanding of the rebels’ capabilities and of the identities and allegiances of fighters spread in disparate groups across the country, the U.S. officials said. The U.S. officials remain wary of some rebels’ suspected ties to hard-line Islamists, including elements of al Qaeda. They acknowledge the FSA doesn’t represent all parts of the insurgency against the Assad regime.”
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Analysts interviewed by The Huffington Post said the task for intelligence officials significantly differs than in Libya, where the CIA was able to plant operatives inside the country to assess the rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi‘s regime. In Libya, Gaddafi was isolated and rebels held Benghazi and other cities. Assad, however, has tightened his grip on Syria’s borders and supplies continue arriving from his closest allies, Iran and Russia.
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“This is probably more difficult than in Libya,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In Syria, it’s a different case. There isn’t any safe ground inside Syria. No area is totally controlled by the FSA.”
There also are many more elements to vet in Syria than in Libya. While the forces arrayed against Gaddafi shared “a sense of informal organization” and were limited in number, White said, inside Syria, “There are upward of 100 organizations and several hundred more exist on paper or on YouTube. Sorting out which formations are worthy of support is a challenge.”
Without being on the ground in Syria, “It’s real hard for us to know who the good guys are and the bad guys are,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University. “If we give arms to the bad guys, we’re in trouble.”
By providing satellite communications equipment, night vision goggles and other logistical aid, U.S. intelligence officials are able to trace them “as dye in the bloodstream to see where it goes and if those people are trustworthy,” said an analyst with years of experience in the region who asked not to be quoted by name. Those found without ties to al Qaeda and other extremist groups are then cleared to receive arms from Arab countries.
“Obviously there are tremendous challenges,” said Robert Grenier, a veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service and a former agency station chief in Pakistan. “You don’t want to be in the position of providing assistance to people who are committing atrocities, attacking Alawites or killing Christians and other minorities. You want to be able to assess tactics and motivations of the different elements of the rebel opposition in order to steer assistance to the relatively good and away from the relatively bad — and get as much influence as you can to incentivize the proper behaviors.”
Adams cautioned that the “risk of blowback is real” in Syria. “The sin of hubris here is real. Hubris says we can make this happen or prevent this from happening and the reality is our ability to actually direct what is happening is extremely minimal.”
Grenier also said intelligence officials “are going to have to make this up as they go along,” but suggested there may be no alternative if the carnage in Syria is to end.
“If you want to avoid any unintended consequences of your actions,” Grenier said, “that’s an argument for doing nothing.”
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Tarpley: I think there is a significant degree of centralization in the following sense. It’s the NATO states plus the reactionary feudal monarchies of the Gulf, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others. The history of this, I think, is interesting you are dealing with death squads. They are indeed terrorists but the kernel, the hard core, the main force of what’s causing the trouble in Syria is these death squads and where did they come from.
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Back in 2006, 2007 the US forces in Iraq found that their situation was almost untenable and Ambassador John Negroponte was brought in after a career in Central America and Latin America. It was found that wherever Negroponte showed up in Central America, in Salvador that death squads would appear and begin essentially targeting population groups that the US wanted to attack or wipe out. And sure enough that is what happened in Iraq around 2007. Negroponte arrived, death squads appeared. Now the death squads in this case were Sunni, extremist fanatics drawn from many, many areas, drawn from Saudi Arabia, from far away points in the world.
They began killing Shiites in particular in Iraq and that is what led to the civil war in Iraq in those years 2007, 2008. That is what allowed the United States to maintain their presence in Iraq. Now at the time Negroponte did this, he was working with a man named Robert Ford it was his right hand man and sure enough Robert Ford then showed up in Damascus as the United States Ambassador.
I would add that in 2007, 2008 the original death squad plan known as the Salvadoran option included Syria. Syria was regarded as a unit with Iraq and so what they were doing was setting the basis at that time they merely needed to develop it further. So I think you’ve got death squads in the center of it and then of course they’re joined by indigenous fanatics, indigenous criminal elements and then there is a thin veneer of civilians who are interested in political reform. The thing is they get lost in the shuffle. My own visit to Homs and Banias last year, this was never a peaceful rebellion, it was always armed; it was always based on killing.
Tarpley: Well, the US and NATO goal, the US, the British, the French, NATO- it is regime change through some kind of coalition of the willing assuming that they can’t get their plan ran through the UN Security council because of the veto of Russia and of China. I think you can also see in the Security Council in the last couple of meetings there is a clear division that Russia and China really would like this plan for observers to work in the sense of lowering the level of violence and pacifying the country.
Certainly there is a civilian opposition to the Ba’ath party and many of them that I met are actually in dialogue with the Ba’ath party. They engage in the political process that has been provided.
Indeed we are going towards elections at the present time, the goal however, if you look at Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Alain Juppe- the last couple of days they obviously don’t want the observer mission to work in that sense.
Now I’ve been skeptical about the observers, however, we must concede to the Russians that it has had some effect. Naturally the Western media still have all their articles: activists say, activists claim, this means the Syrian observatory in London which is a gaggle of Syrian expatriates of the Rifaat Assad clique.
Then there is the coordination, there is the group of Khaddam in Paris. So they all, they compete with an extravagant claims of deaths and so forth. We ought to hear what these observers have to say but of course we have got to watch out where these observers come from.
I’m not reassured by the fact that the head of the observer team is a NATO general by the name of Mood from Norway. That doesn’t seem to be a very good choice; he’s not likely to be very even-handed.
The other problem you have is that Ban Ki-Moon and the Political Chief of the United Nations, B. Lynn Pascoe, the political commissar of this mission alone with (Navanethem) Navy Pillay, they have discredited themselves.
Those are not international civil servants, they are not even-handed, they are not honest brokers- they are people who are looking for jobs- I would say in US-based multinational corporations at some future point. The one ingredient that you need to have is have the question of the death squads brought up.
Tarpley: I think it’s a great danger. Right now there is an attempt by the NATO powers to create a civil war from the outside. I don’t think they have the wherewithal for a civil war as we just heard eloquently stated but they will try.
Let’s look for a second at the former colonial power. Always a good place to look in these situations- that would be France, they ran Syria well into the 1940s. Could they do something?
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