Last week, Reuters reported a classified intelligence “finding” signed by President Obama authorizing aid to the Syrian rebels. This may be the tip of the iceberg that eventually reveals an extensive covert campaign by the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to overthrow the Assad government in Damascus. According to this scenario, these U.S. allies would be using Qatar, assorted freelance jihadists and Lebanese rightists as cat’s-paws to sustain the uprising. Jihadists, both Syrian and foreign, may also play a spearhead role in the fighting.
Western powers already may be employing destabilization methods in Syria that were perfected in Libya. The DGSE, French foreign intelligence, cobbled together a group of Libyan exiles to form the “National Forces Coalition,” which rallied anti-Qadaffi elements in Benghazi. Britain’s MI6 intelligence had been active there for decades stirring up opponents of the Qadaffi regime.
In Libya, NATO air power intervened on “humanitarian” grounds to halt killing of civilians. News reports showed only lightly armed civilians battling Qadaffi’s regulars. Not shown were French, British and some other Western special forces disguised as Libyans that did much of the fighting and targeted air strikes.
As a former soldier, I cannot believe that anti-Assad forces in Syria have made such great strides on their own. All armed forces require command and control, specialized training, communications and logistics. How have anti-Assad forces moved so quickly and pushed back Syria’s capable, well-equipped army? Where does all their ammo come from? Who is supplying all those modern assault rifles with optical sights?
How have so many Syrian T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles been knocked out? Not by amateur street fighters. Powerful antitank weapons—likely French, American or Turkish—have been used extensively. You don’t blow up a modern T-72 tank with light, handheld RPG rockets. Powerful antitank weapons, like the U.S. TOW or French Milan, require professional, trained crews. The use of these weapons suggests that outside forces are involved in the fighting, as they were in Libya.
Now come reports that the rebels are receiving small numbers of man-portable antiaircraft missiles. If properly used, they would threaten the Assad regime’s armed helicopters. Yet using such missiles requires a good deal of training. I saw in Afghanistan in the 1980s how long it took the mujahidin to learn this skill from CIA instructors—and then how quickly the Red Air Force was denied air superiority.
If Syria’s rebels are being trained, it is probably happening in Turkey (which makes the deadly U.S. Stinger AA missile under license). However, the United States has a major campaign under way to prevent jihadist groups from acquiring such man-portable missiles. If the Taliban received effective antiaircraft missiles, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would be seriously threatened.
According to Reuters sources, the United States may have worked with Turkish allies to set up a command HQ at Adana, close to its Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. This is where it would make sense for U.S. intelligence to coordinate the flow of arms, communications gear, medical supplies, food and munitions to the Syrian rebels.
Other unverified reports from the Mideast suggest that the U.S. mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater (it recently changed its name to Academi) is training Syrian rebels in Turkey, moving in veteran mercenaries from Iraq, where there were once fifty thousand U.S.-paid private soldiers, and sending combat units into Syria.
Antiregime groups such as the Free Syrian Army probably would be ineffective without some kind of covert Western support. Whether they can grasp power from the jihadis who now dominate the streets remains to be seen. This gambit worked in Libya—at least so far. Syria, in contrast, is a very complex nation whose modern era has been marked by instability and coups.
After overthrowing one Syrian government in the late 1940s, Washington wisely backed off from Syria. Now it may get drawn back into the vortex of one of the Mideast’s most difficult nations.