The Rebels: We Need Intel More Than Arms

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Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pose with their weapons. Their advocate in Washington says they need better intelligence more than additional weapons.

It took Twitter five years to hire a Washington lobbyist. That was quick compared to Apple, which took 25 years to begin paying someone to represent its interests in the capital.

Violence had been raging in Syria for 14 months before the Free Syrian Army, the largest force in opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, hired Brian Sayers to represent their interests in Washington. Of course, their needs are much more dire.

By United Nations estimates some 10,000 people have died since the Arab Spring reached Damascus and the violence has only increased in recent months with arms flowing in to both sides (as Simon Shuster explores from Moscow in this week’s print edition, and here). But, while Moscow arms Assad’s regime – though they’ve pledged no new sales, some $4 billion in contracts are outstanding – the opposition is not seeking the same from the U.S.

The FSA is getting plenty of arms and cash from the Qatari, Saudi Arabian and, to a lesser extent, the Emirati governments, according to U.S. sources. What they want from Washington is a smarter way to use these weapons. “Everyone says, just give them a bunch of weapons. Well, rocket propelled grenades are fine but ultimately what they need is intelligence support in order to bring down the regime,” says Sayers, “because ultimately the regime has more sophisticated weaponry. The FSA has nowhere near that kind of capacity. And so here’s where the U.S. could do a huge amount of support and it could be done very covertly.”

Currently, the U.S. is only providing Syrian political groups – not armed ones like the FSA –humanitarian aid, communications equipment and training. The State Department is carefully vetting these opposition groups to ensure they have no terrorist links. The U.S. stamp of approval then opens the floodgates for other countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to provide lethal aid as well.

Some say that’s not nearly enough. “If the U.S. is only going to be a facilitator of arms flows into the country, that’s not enough to be stabilize things, to end the violence,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident who has been in exile in Washington since 2005. “In fact, it only makes things worse.”

Adbulhamid wants Washington and NATO to impose a no-fly zone as they did over Libya and Iraq. But U.S. officials say there is little chance of that happening given Assad’s advanced anti-aircraft weaponry. “The notion that we could pursue a military intervention and that would make the situation go away would not be one we’d sign on to,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser.

“There’s not an option that would make the situation better,” he says. “Not just because of the lack of a United Nations mandate, but because of the nature of the conflict. In Libya, you had huge swathes of the country that could be cordoned off by air power. Not so in Syria…Also there’s not a simple process where we could pick one group and arm them and that would tip the scales.”

All of which is why Sayers is starting with what he considers a reasonable request for intelligence. “We’re not going to have boots on the ground, we’ve already said that, NATO’s not going to get involved,” says Sayers, who until recently was a political officer at NATO in Brussels. “We’re not even going to support a no-fly zone. So in order to have a no-kill zone it’s got to be the FSA who does it but they’re going to have to have intelligence support to do this.”

Most analysts in Washington believe Russia is giving Assad similar intelligence. Russia, like the U.S., does have a policy of providing satellite data to its allies when they need it, says Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian military strategist. “The Russian state does engage in this practice,” he says. But he could “not confirm or deny” that Russia has done this in Syria, because such cooperation constitutes state secrets. Syria’s other two main allies, Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Syria, certainly are giving Assad everything they can. So, Sayers argues, giving the opposition similar capabilities only levels the playing field.

The U.S. did something similar in Libya towards the end of the Qaddafi regime. The first step towards handing over intelligence is the vetting process State is already engaged in: is this a trusted source who won’t give the information to al Qaeda?

The second step is to train them to handle the intelligence. “Over time the people that were in there advising and assisting the Libyans were giving them that kind of information,” says Jeff White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I’ve heard from people trying to help the Syrians, that they’re trying to move that way, training them on the process of packaging information.”

For a President who has invested more in covert operations than any of his predecessors, giving Syria opposition groups this kind of intelligence might be the most appealing way to help them defend themselves and limit the violence while the political process plays out.