Sooner or later, it was bound to come out in the open. Last week, The New York Times reported that CIA agents have been in Turkey for several weeks, helping screen potential arms recipients while also establishing new contacts in Syria.
The Obama administration did not confirm the report, but officials insisted that the United States was not providing “lethal assistance” to the Syrian opposition. Still, other US news sources have corroborated the fact that CIA agents were now playing a major role in establishing contacts with the Syrian opposition and providing advice to Turkey and a number of Gulf countries on weapon transfer.
Perhaps this was inevitable. In the absence of a political way out of the Syrian crisis, 15 months after the outbreak of popular protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad, the Obama administration is now turning to the CIA, which is carrying out clandestine operations.
The official US position remains the same: it provides non-lethal aid to the opposition. But now the CIA is vetting various opposition groups to make sure that arms provided by Turkey and others do not fall in the wrong hands, especially Al Qaeda’s.
Qatar and other Arab states have been calling on the UN and Western countries to apply Chapter Seven of the UN Charter on Syria, or arm the opposition so that Syrians can defend themselves against the war machine of the Damascus regime. It now appears that a number of Gulf countries, in addition to Turkey, are stepping up their involvement by providing arms to the Syrian opposition.
The Damascus government has made such claims and has accused foreign powers of meddling in Syria’s internal affairs in what it describes as an international conspiracy.
Ironically, the CIA has little experience in Syria, as former Middle East CIA field officer Robert Baer says. Writing in Time magazine last week, Baer says the agency “knows next to nothing about the Syrian opposition, which is a mare’s nest of secular and religious groups”.
He added: “It should also be remembered that the CIA has had a long, unhappy history playing Syrian politics. In the 1960s, one of its operatives was accused of trying to foment a coup, and was hanged in Damascus’ central square.”
Baer says that both the State Department and the CIA came to an informal understanding that CIA would keep away from the Syrian opposition, and it, in fact, did just that for the following three decades.
“So right now, the CIA is playing catch-up,” he said.
Standing tough against US moves to apply diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime is Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, who is on a tour to Israel and Jordan this week, has resisted attempts to apply additional sanctions against Damascus, and rejected any solution that involves Assad’s departure from power. Washington and its European allies are fuming over reports that Moscow is providing sophisticated arms to the Syrian regime.
Last week, a Russian commercial vessel carrying combat helicopters to Syria was turned back off the British coasts.
Since UN international observers suspended their mission in Syria, because of rising violence, the regime has ratcheted up its aerial and land bombardment of major cities and towns, including Homs, Idlib, Deraa and the outskirts of Damascus. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the local Red Crescent have been unable to evacuate the wounded in Homs, which has been under heavy artillery attacks by the Syrian army. YouTube footage and eyewitness testimonies have provided evidence that the Free Syrian Army has been able to destroy government tanks and cause heavy losses to loyal troops.
It is also evident that the government has lost control over large areas of the country. It is now using the air force to carry out attacks against civilian targets.
With Kofi Annan’s plan on hold, the two opposing parties are busy trying to make progress in the battlefield. There are no signs that the regime is ready to abandon the military option. As long as it can rely on Russia’s political and military backing, it will continue to strike hard against its opponents, even if this results in heavy civilian casualties.
On the other hand, the shooting down of a Turkish fighter early in the week, inside or close to Syrian territorial waters, has aggravated the situation. Turkey provides safe havens to members of the opposition, in addition to thousands of armed combatants along the Turkish-Syrian border. The latest crisis could develop into an open challenge between the two countries.
CIA’s involvement means that a secret war is now being waged between the US and its allies, on the one hand, and Syria and its backers, which include Iran and Hizbollah, on the other. A conflagration of the present situation could easily develop into an open warfare. This affects all parties including Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Iraq.
Some observers have drawn similarities between the CIA’s secret arming of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, who were fighting against the Soviet occupation, and the present situation in Syria. Arming the rebels will push the Syrian crisis to a new milestone that could lead to a protracted civil war.
In spite of daily defections, the Damascus regime remains in control — for now. If the US decides to step up its involvement and provide the opposition with much more than non-lethal aid, Syria could quickly turn into an international crisis.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. The article was published in the Jordan Times on June 26, 2012