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Syria Analysis: The Narrow Intelligence of US Intelligence Services

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warns of the presence of Al Qa'eda in Syria

Like all of us, the CIA has been caught off-guard by the pace of events in Syria. The advance of insurgents in parts of the country might have been expected, but suddenly the battle was in Damascus. Then came Wednesday's surprise: the bomb that decimated the top ranks of the Assad regime.

So what does a responsible intelligence service do? It launches a public-relations campaign.

The CIA got in touch with its long-time if unofficial Press Secretary, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, and the Obama Administration also fed lines to Helene Cooper of The New York Times. The message? Ignatius declares, "President Obama is seeking a 'managed transition' in Syria with the twin goals of removing President Bashar al-Assad as soon as possible and doing so without the evaporation of the authority of the Syrian state."

Using Ignatius and Cooper's transcripts, what are the CIA's priorities in that managed transition?


Ignatius: "The most urgent question for CIA officers is how potent are al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Syrian opposition. The answer seems to be that, while al-Qaeda is a factor, other opposition groups are promising the United States that they will root it out — once they have disposed of the Assad regime. That’s somewhat reassuring, similar to the alliance Gen. David Petraeus formed in Iraq with Sunni militias against al-Qaeda."


Cooper: "Obama administration officials worked on contingency plans Wednesday for a collapse of the Syrian government, focusing particularly on the chemical weapons that Syria is thought to possess and that President Bashir al-Assad could try to use on opposition forces and civilians.

Ignatius: "The need to safeguard Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal is one reason why the United States is stressing an orderly transfer in which the opposition works with acceptable elements of the regime and army. The slow-and-steady U.S. approach has angered some militant Sunni opposition leaders, who prefer a decapitation of the regime and a revolutionary transition."


COOPER: "Pentagon officials were in talks with Israeli defense officials about whether Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities, two administration official said. The administration is not advocating such an attack, the American officials said, because of the risk that it would give Mr. Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israeli interference."

IGNATIUS: "Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria’s border, though they are keeping a low profile."


IGNATIUS: "Another U.S. message to the Sunni opposition is that it must reach out to the Syrian minorities allied with the regime — Alawites, Christians and Druze — and reassure them that they will have substantial representation in any new post-Assad government. So far, this inter-communal dialogue has gotten more lip service than real action."


Now all of these are legitimate concerns and approaches --- although some may wonder if publicising co-operation with Israel over the possible collapse of an Arab state is the smartest PR outside Washington --- but I wonder if the CIA might want to critique its view as, let's say, incomplete.



Even on its chosen terrain of the Most Urgent Priority, the CIA might want to go beyond its Al Qa'eda mantra and Chemical Weapons spectre. 

The insurgents are a collection of groups, rather than a single bloc, but there is purportedly a working if loose structure called the Free Syrian Army. And, even if you don't want to accept that, there has been little evidence so far of Osama bin Laden's men leading the campaign against the Assad regime.

As James Miller set out last week in his lengthy essay on the insurgency, it developed not as a terrorist campaign --- the mantra of the Assad regime as well as the CIA's narrative to Ignatius --- but as a response to the Syrian military's attacks on civilians in areas such as Idlib Province in the northwest and Daraa Province in the south. It has built on that base, more as an indigenous movement --- albeit one seeking the outside support of arms --- rather than as the puppet of a foreign organisation.


Beyond the references to America's good friend Israel, there is a regional perspective in Ignatius's stenography:

The main transit routes into Syria come from the four points of the compass — Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. The two key axes, in terms of Western assistance, are Turkey and Jordan, both close allies of the United States. The two potential flash points for spreading the sectarian fighting are Lebanon and Iraq, both of which have substantial Shiite militias allied with Iran, which backs Assad.

However, there might be a case to consider the regional dimension beyond the weapons issue and the bogeyman of Iran. After all, there is a complex political game here, with Turkey not only manoeuvring only versus Damascus but also dealing with a sensitive border issue, the spiral of refugees in its southeastern provinces, and the Kurdish dimension. Iraq, in its own process of post-war reconstruction, is involved, while Lebanon --- which is far more than "Hezbollah" --- and Jordan are trying to insulate themselves from the spillover of instability.


There is an argument to be made, albeit not nearly as dramatic as covert operations and sudden bombs, that the greatest damage to the Assad regime --- apart from mass protests (see The Political and Social Dimensions below) --- has been the economic squeeze on its assets and on Syria's production, exports, and imports.

That economic pressure has bled into the military sphere, with difficulties in moving forces around the country and the prospect of defections among disaffected troops. It has also eroded political support, for eroded in the business sector in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.


The most striking omission in the Ignatius and Cooper summaries, however, is any apparent recogntion of the 16 months of political and social "transition" that have brought Syria to this critical point and that will shape the post-Assad environment.

Ignatius' crude binary of Sunni opposition v. "Alawites, Christians and Druze" does not begin to capture the complexities within Syrian communities that go beyond a supposed sectarian allegiance. There are Sunnis who have backed the regime and there are "Alawites, Christians and Druze" in the opposition.

(One might also wonder why the CIA and/or Ignatius erased the Kurds entirely, but that opens up a column's worth of possibilities.)

A starting point, if we are talking intelligence, is an assessment not of sect but of political organisation and maneouvres. Outside Syria, there has been the scramble of a myriad of groups and individuals to claim a voice for the Syrian future, but that does not necessarily even touch the issue of those groups and individuals working inside the country. 

The nature of represssion means that political contacts between "outside" and "inside" --- despite single incidents such as the sudden visit of Burhan Ghalioun, the former head of the Syrian National Council, to Idlib Province for a few hours --- are difficult to develop, let alone sustain. If the Assad regime is collapsing or at least contracting, then the possibilities for those contacts opens up, but there will be no single conference or manifesto to encompass them.


I may be unfair on the CIA here. The flaws of transcription and compression may be those of Ignatius and, to a lesser extent, Cooper.

Still, it is worrying that these columns may represent the actual vision of US officials. Rather than working with the facts on the ground --- the "local" perspective --- that vision imposes sweeping terms, born of the War on Terror and the flawed Iraq War of 2003, of Al Qa'eda and weapons of mass destruction and a one-size-fits-all sectarian model. 

It would be an equal folly to replace the CIA/Ignatius PR with an All is Well rosiness --- the four dimensions above do not point to that easy resolution. Instead, it might be worthwhile dismissing all these ready-made declarations of "Washington's Plans", "Assad's Fall", and "Syrian Endgame". The situation, even if the demise of the President, is fluid. At the same time, it is far more than Washington's knee-jerk spectre of a decade of Al Qa'eda, terrorism, and a region shaped by confrontation with Tehran and US alliance with Israel.

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