Analysis: US spy agencies stil in the dark about Syria

Regional map of Syria


It has been almost a year since the ongoing anti-government uprising erupted in Syria. But intelligence agencies in the United States are still struggling to make sense of most aspects of the spiraling conflict. In February, the US Department of State closed down its embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus and recalled all of its diplomatic personnel, including US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, to Washington. Since then, the Central Intelligence Agency, which conducted its operations in Syria largely out of the US embassy there, has been forced to rely on scattered fragments of its agent network in Damascus, as well as on the work of a handful of allied intelligence services, including those of Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, the closure of the US embassy in Syria has boosted the role of the signals intelligence collection and satellite reconnaissance. But, none of these intelligence collection channels have been able to compensate for the lack of adequate human intelligence collection from inside Syria. As a result, according to The Washington Post, which cites “senior US officials”, US intelligence-gathering on the situation in Syria is currently “fragmentary [and] out of focus”. Specifically, the US intelligence community remains unclear about the tactical and strategic intentions of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has limited information about the makeup and strength of the opposition forces in the country. Perhaps more importantly, American intelligence analysts have little evidence on which to base any sort of firm conclusions about the extent of involvement of militant Islamists in the funding and operations of the Syrian opposition. The paper quotes Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), Chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who says that US intelligence collection on Syria is “a mixed bag”, adding that it “comes and goes […] and probably rates on the low-acuity side”. The newspaper also claims that US President Barack Obama has authorized initial planning for a possible military intervention in Syria, but that he has so far refrained from issuing a Presidential finding, which would permit the CIA to undertake covert operations on Syrian soil.

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