By John Follain, the Sunday Times
August 12, 2012
DESPITE mounting calls in Washington for a more aggressive US military role in Syria, the CIA has been quietly working along its northern border with Turkey to limit the supplies of weapons and ammunition reaching rebel forces, according to Syrian opposition officials.
"Not one bullet enters Syria without US approval," one official claimed in Istanbul. "The Americans want the [rebellion] to continue, but they are not allowing enough supplies in to make the Damascus regime fall."
Details of the CIA's policing activities offer a rare insight into the complex struggle for regional advantage that is rapidly developing at the margins of the Syrian civil war.
Conducted mostly by clandestine agents from America, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and Iran, the conflict has turned Turkey's rugged border provinces into a hotbed of arms dealers, spies and would-be fighters.
Over the past 10 months, a Syrian opposition official told The Sunday Times, the CIA has blocked shipments of heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which rebel units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have long described as vital to their efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's regime. At the same time, they have approved supplies of AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, and just over a month ago they gave the green light to a shipment of 10,000 Russian-made rocketpropelled grenades (RPGs). "The weapons are being carried across the border on donkeys, which are especially good for carrying ammunition," the official said. Since the fall to rebel forces of Azaz, a Syrian town near the Turkish border, guns have begun to arrive by truck.
The weapons are either bought on the black market in Istanbul or supplied by the rebels' allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. "Qatar sends money and usually says, 'go and buy what you want'," the official said. "The Turks just give the weapons free of charge, especially light anti-tank weapons." Yet rebel frustration is mounting at the CIA's reluctance to allow heavy weaponry across the border, for fear that it may eventually be used against America's allies.
"The RPGs aren't enough," the opposition official said. "You have to be close to the tank to make any impact, and often the fighter using it gets killed."
The CIA's activities highlight a contradiction in Washington's approach to Syria. While President Barack Obama's administration supports the rebels, has called for Assad to step down and is supplying opposition forces with millions of dollars in non-lethal aid, it has shied from a more forcible military intervention. Suggestions that Washington is deliberately prolonging the conflict while it attempts to identify a friendly successor to Assad were described by one former CIA official as "a little too Machiavellian" last week.
Yet Washington's hesitant strategy is coming under fire from Republicans and Democrats who fear US inaction will encourage Al-Qaeda and other extremists to build a powerbase in a post-Assad Syria. William Perry, a defence secretary under President Bill Clinton, warned that if America continued to sit on its hands, "we'll be in no position to influence the post-Assad government".
He recommended that US forces impose a no-fly, nodrive zone in northern Syria. Other experts said Obama's policy appeared to be driven by fear of what one former CIA official described as "negative unintended consequences". Bob Grenier, a former director of the CIA counterterrorism centre, said the CIA's activities along the border were intended to protect the administration from future embarrassment if the rebel groups it supports today turn out to be hostile to Israel or America should they gain power.
"It would not be good if it was later established that weapons reached people identified with Al-Qaeda, and we could have done something about it," Grenier said. He described the administration's current policy as "hiding behind the CIA".
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said in Turkey yesterday that measures to assist the rebels, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone, were being considered.
She also revealed that America and Turkey were discussing how to cope with the consequences of any chemical attack on opponents of the regime.
CIA agents have been active along the border, attempting to prevent jihadists sympathetic to Al-Qaeda from joining the Syrian fray.
"The CIA vetoes Al-Qaeda and it's not very keen on the Muslim Brotherhood," a Syrian opposition official said.
Khaled Khoja, from the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said American fears of an Islamist takeover were unfounded. "Islamists in Syria are a very minor group," he said.
"They can be controlled. This won't be a new Iraq [where US forces found themselves confronted by a flood of Islamic insurgents]".
Senior SNC members said Britain was supplying neither money nor arms to the FSA. "The Brits are at the end of the line, we ask them for money and military assistance, they tell us to submit projects as if we were talking about business plans," said one frustrated official.
With both the CIA and Israel's Mossad attempting to locate Syria's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and Iranian agents keeping a close eye on western intervention, southern Turkey is beginning to resemble a desert version of cold war Berlin — teeming with spies engaged in a largely secret battle for scraps of intelligence from a distant war.
Additional reporting: Gareth Jenkins