Bill Van Auken
Washington has rushed a beefed-up contingent of CIA operatives to Turkey’s southern border in a bid to escalate the war for regime change in neighboring Syria.
Citing US officials familiar with the plan, the Associated Press reported Friday that this “modest surge” by the US intelligence agency over the past few weeks “has helped improve rebels’ political organizing skills as well as their military organization.”
The AP describes the buildup as “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.”
Weapons and funding have come from Washington’s closest allies in the Arab world, the Saudi monarchy and the monarchical regimes in Qatar and the other Persian Gulf states. Al Qaeda elements and other Islamist jihadist elements have played an increasingly prominent role in the US-backed bid to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad by stoking a brutal sectarian civil war.
There can be little doubt that the Al Qaeda forces, which have come from as far away as Chechnya, have been brought into Syria with the covert support of Washington and its Arab allies. At the same time, the Obama administration and the CIA are attempting to use these forces for tactical advantage, while seeking to cobble together a puppet regime out of other, more pliable elements. This effort has centered on a combination of Western-backed opposition figures with no popular support in Syria and military defectors from the Syrian army command.
A Turkish and French agreement, backed by Washington, has produced a new “Syrian National Army” claiming to coordinate military councils opposed to Assad in various parts of the country. At its head is Maj. Gen. Muhammad Hussein al-Haj Ali, who defected last month. The ex-general is demanding that the Free Syrian Army, which had claimed to be coordinating the array of anti-government militias, and the Syrian National Council, the fractious group of Western intelligence assets, Islamists and defectors, subordinate themselves to his command. The leader of the FSA has rejected the general’s demand.
The CIA “surge” in Turkey was accompanied by an unannounced visit to that country by the agency’s director, David Petraeus. He carried out a one-day visit to Ankara on Monday, amid reports that he held talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and National Intelligence Organization chief Hakan Fidan.
At the top of the agenda was tightening coordination between Washington and Turkey in the bid to effect regime change in Syria. It is likely that Petraeus offered Turkey increased US support for operations in Syria in part to mend diplomatic fences between Washington and Ankara. The Turkish government was reportedly stung by the US failure to support its demand for the imposition of a “safe haven” inside Syria for those fleeing the ongoing violence. Such a measure would involve direct foreign military intervention and partition of Syrian territory while creating a protected base of operations for the so-called rebels.
Foreign Minister Davutoglu appeared before the United Nations Security Council last week to make the case for carving out such a territory. Some 80,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey and thousands more are expected to follow suit. Washington failed to side with its NATO ally on the proposal, which almost certainly would have been vetoed by Russia and China.
The Turkish daily Zaman quoted an unnamed “intelligence analyst” as saying that with Petraeus’s trip, “the US is … trying to make up for lack of support for Turkey’s non-starter call for a humanitarian safe zone inside Syria.” He added that, in addition to Syria, Petraeus and his Turkish counterparts discussed coordinating counterinsurgency operations against the PKK Kurdish separatist guerrillas, which have stepped up operations since the onset of the civil war in Syria.
Calls for a Syrian intervention came from some of those attending a meeting of European Union foreign ministers held in Cyprus Friday.
“Can we let a civil war take hold indefinitely because some countries are exercising their veto right in the Security Council?” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said, referring to Russia and China. “I have to say that there is now hesitation between that absolute respect of a Security Council agreement and the duty to intervene.”
France and Italy issued a joint letter calling on the EU ministers to hold an “extraordinary meeting” devoted to a “substantial strategic discussion” about Syria during the UN General Assembly later this month. The letter, quoted by the DPA news agency, warns, “Should we fail in Syria, stability in the Middle East would be disrupted and Europe’s security … be seriously threatened.”
Meanwhile, in an indication that Washington is once again preparing to employ alleged dangers from “weapons of mass destruction” as a pretext for another Middle East war, the Washington Post Thursday carried a major article entitled “Worries intensify over Syrian chemical weapons,” citing unnamed US intelligence and military officials.
The thrust of the piece is that the threat of a “complete breakdown of authority” in Syria, the product of the US and Western-backed civil war for regime change, would place Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles at risk, necessitating Western intervention to secure them.
According to the Post, these fears have “hastened preparations for securing the sites with foreign troops, the US and Middle Eastern officials said.”
The article adds that “if weapons sites are overrun during fighting—or if loyalist forces are seen preparing for a chemical attack—plans call for sending elite foreign military forces to secure the arms under fire, if necessary, according to the officials.”
US Sends More Spies, Diplomats to Syrian Border
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.
The White House has resisted calls to provide lethal aid or engage militarily, instead limiting aid to non-lethal support like encrypted radios to enable the rebels to better communicate.
That approach is playing out against a surge in violence that’s seen 1,600 people killed in recent weeks, out of a death toll that has reached between 23,000 and 26,000, according to activists’ estimates.
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.
U.S. officials counter that they are still reluctant to sign off on lethal aid, with so many Islamic militants joining the rebels’ ranks, preferring to manage the conflict from the sidelines.
Assad’s ally Iran shows no such reluctance, resuming flights of aid from Iran to Syria that U.S. officials believe include weapons, U.S. officials say.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the Security Council on Wednesday for failing to take action to protect Syrians, who are now fleeing the country in record numbers.
“We have seen the immense human cost of failing to protect,” he said.