U.S. Bolsters Ties to Fighters in Syria / CIA Helping With Logistics but Not Arms, Officials Say (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By JAY SOLOMON And NOUR MALAS Washington 06/14/12)
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WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats have stepped up
their contacts with Syrian rebels in part to help organize their
burgeoning military operations against President Bashar al-Assad´s
forces, according to senior U.S. officials.
As part of the efforts, the Central Intelligence Agency and State
Department—working with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other allies—
are helping the opposition Free Syrian Army develop logistical routes
for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training.
U.S. officials also are considering sharing intelligence with the
Free Syrian Army, or FSA, to allow the rebels to evade pro-Assad
forces, which are believed to be getting intelligence, arms and
communications support from Russia and Iran, the officials said. Iran
it denies it is involved in Syria; Russia says the arms it sells
Syria aren´t used in the crackdown.
Details of the deepening U.S. involvement comes as many international
and local observers say Syria´s deadly 15-month conflict has reached
new lows. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned
that "the situation is spiraling toward civil war."
The CIA´s heightened role is seen by some as a sign of growing U.S.
seriousness about the military effort against the Assad government.
U.S. officials also think that added pressure could force the regime
to agree to a cease-fire.
The U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, say U.S. and Arab
officials. Saudi Arabia is particularly fixated on overthrowing Mr.
Assad, said Arab officials, viewing it as a way to settle scores with
an arch foe and weaken its chief regional rival Iran.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the funds for arms, Arab
officials and Syrian opposition leaders say. The Obama administration
hasn´t agreed to arm the FSA, the U.S. officials stressed. Mrs.
Clinton on Wednesday denied charges by Syria and others that the U.S.
has armed the rebels.
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.
But the administration hopes that their growing contacts will result
in a more-organized fighting force that will shed more-troublesome
"Some of [this communication] is dedicated to figuring out who these
people are by talking to them," said a U.S. official briefed on
Syria. "We´re not going to give out weapons and comms to people who
can´t figure out how their chain of command works."
The U.S. operatives are drawing on their experience in Libya, and are
conveying the message that the FSA needs to professionalize its ranks
and better organize itself to receive further assistance, the
"Recognizing that the phenomenon is not going to go away, we want it
to have a command and control structure, and be responsive to
civilian leadership at the local level," said a Western official who
has worked with the Syrian opposition.
The U.S. has had diplomatic contacts with Syrian dissidents for more
than six months. The CIA and State Department began stepping up
contacts with the FSA around March, according to U.S. officials and
Syrian opposition groups, due in part to the rising concerns about
the presence of extremist groups, especially after twin bombings in
Damascus that month.
In April, Mrs. Clinton said publicly that the State Department would
begin providing communications equipment to the Syrian National
Council, the umbrella group that brings together Syria´s main
political opposition. Privately, American officials have acknowledged
that much of this gear will end up with the FSA.
The State Department and CIA declined to comment.
U.S. defense officials and Syria analysts believe the FSA has grown
into an increasingly sophisticated fighting force in recent months,
after getting routed in the central Syrian city of Homs in February.
The flow of ammunition has increased to the FSA through Syria´s
northern border with Turkey, they said. And the FSA´s internal
command structure appears more organized and able to communicate to a
sprawling mix of insurgent groups operating across the country.
The rebels have obtained increasingly lethal roadside bombs in recent
months, as well as anti-tank rockets, say rebels and U.S. officials.
This week, Syrian rebels began to say publicly they are able to
intercept government military communications. Rebel commanders also
say new, secure communications between their ranks have allowed them
to organize larger defections.
On Sunday, rebels said they had briefly overtaken an air-defense base
that held advanced surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft vehicles.
The FSA´s operation to target the al-Ghanto missile base north of
Homs is outlined in a series of videos posted on YouTube said to have
been shot by rebels.
In the videos, commanders describe the orchestrated defection of
soldiers and officers at the base, as well the swift regime attack
that followed. It appeared to leave the area around the base on fire
and destroy the arsenal of weapons and ammunition, said rebel
officers involved in the alleged operation.
In one video, an officer says the missile base was completely
destroyed in bombing by government helicopters after rebels there
seized some weapons and ammunition. It isn´t clear what weaponry they
may have made away with, but the reported incident illustrates a
growing boldness among rebel fighters in attempting larger-scale
"In the past two months, the rebels have shown renewed vigor.…They
are pressing the regime on a lot of areas," said Jeffrey White, a
former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, now at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy. "The FSA is stretching the regime´s
U.S. and Arab officials believe Mr. Assad is increasingly losing
control of the Syrian countryside, even though he maintains power in
cities like Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. On Wednesday, the
government said it regained control of Haffa, a rebellious city
perched atop the mountainous Latakia coast, a government stronghold.
The president is also seen losing his ability to control supply
routes connecting his forces to northern Syria and the coast.
"There´s a stalemate in which the government controls key major
cities. But once you get off the main highway, the rebels basically
own it," said Joseph Holliday, an analyst at Washington´s Institute
for the Study of War.
The political resurgence of the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the
largest and only opposition group with experience in fighting the
Assad regime, has also raised concerns in Washington that the loosely
connected Syrian militias will pursue a bloody, chaotic and
ultimately unsuccessful insurgency like the one the Brotherhood led
in the 1980s.
To reassert influence, Syria´s Brotherhood, a large faction in the
opposition Syrian National Council, has bypassed its parent coalition
and created its own military bureau to funnel funds and arms to
fighters in Homs and parts of Hama.
Some of these fighters, desperate for support, say they are
halfheartedly pledging political allegiance to the Brotherhood—a
short-term promise they say they intend to later betray. Already,
rebel fighters say rival militias have fought each other—and other
unidentified fighters—in hourslong battles in Homs and Idlib.
In recent weeks, rebel fighters have responded to international calls
to better centralize command of the fight. They have created nine
military councils at the level of Syria´s provinces led by appointed
army defectors—rather than civilian fighters—that command smaller
brigades. It is too soon to tell how such efforts will play out, with
over 100 fighting groups spread across the country.
The growing instability in Syria is feeding a growing debate inside
the Obama administration and allied governments about the potential
need to intervene to stop the bloodletting inside Syria.
Washington is against taking military action in Syria without a
formal mandate from the United Nations Security Council, something
Russia and China have so far opposed. There is increasing talk of
establishing buffer zones on Syria´s borders with Turkey and Jordan
to protect civilians from Mr. Assad´s forces. Allies also have
discussed providing greater security for U.N. monitors operating
These discussions come as senior American, Israeli and Arab officials
have said in recent weeks that they are growing increasingly worried
that Syria is degenerating into a failed state and that violence
inside the country could spill into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
In a worst-case scenario, these officials said, the country could
split into zones: with Mr. Assad and his closest allies—Iran and the
Lebanese militant group Hezbollah—maintaining control of Syria´s
northwest. Sunni extremists and Islamist fundamentalist groups, such
as al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, could control other regions,
while Kurdish groups would maintain their own areas.
Further feeding fears is the potential for Syria´s large stockpile of
chemical weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah or al Qaeda, as
Mr. Assad´s forces are no longer are able to secure arms depots. Such
a threat, combined with the spreading violence, is causing some U.S.
and allied officials to conclude that an intervention into Syria is
inevitable at some juncture.
"Syria has the potential to be totally fragmented," said a senior
Israeli official. "It has the potential to be the new model of Iraq.
It will project into the whole region."
—Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
(Copyright © Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 06/14/12)
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