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Does the CIA really have no idea about the nature of Syria's rebels?

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Syria's war has raged for well over a year in a region of intense US interest. The country shares borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and NATO ally Turkey. President Bashar al-Assad's regime has a chemical weapons stockpile. The country is a close ally of Iran. And the US has long urged Syrians, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, to upend their country's political order and build a new order while successively piling sanctions on the central government.

But according to a Washington Post article yesterday, which relies entirely on the anonymous sourcing so prevalent in coverage of Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency and other US intelligence agencies have no idea about the composition of the forces fighting Mr. Assad and their ultimate political goals. The Obama administration has been supporting rebels with communications equipment and other non-lethal support for months, and appears eager to do more. But the Post writes that, according to "officials," Team Obama has been stymied by a lack of information.

The Post article quotes a US "official who expressed concerns over persistent gaps" in the government's knowledge. “We’ve got to figure out who is over there first, and we don’t really know that,” the source told the Post. “It’s not like this is a new war. It’s been going on for 16 months.”

The story made a splash this morning on the Twitter feeds and blogs of people who follow the Middle East, with many sniggering about the incompetence implied: How could the US intelligence services and their allies know so little about who is fighting in Syria? After all, there's an overt intelligence budget of $70 billion and however many more billions for covert intelligence gathering, and Syria is right at the top of the government's foreign police concerns.

I think something else is at work here. It's axiomatic that the agendas of people who talk to reporters (advancing their interests) are not generally aligned with those of the reporters themselves (getting as close to the truth as possible). When sources are anonymous, the likelihood of manipulation tends to go up. I think that the US intelligence community and the politicians they advise know plenty about the insurgency in Syria, but are uncomfortable with the implications of what they're finding.

This is not to say that Syria's uprising is easy to understand, marked as it is by regional and sectarian interests, little to no central command and, yes, a paucity of clear information flows. It is undoubtedly the case that there's a great deal that the US would like to know about the rebellion that remains out of reach.

But that is a far different thing from driving blind. In the same Post article an unnamed "Middle Eastern intelligence official" implied that a great deal is understood, though he complained that vetting the rebel groups is "still in the very early stages." The Post writes: "The foreign official cited concern that the opposition is at risk of becoming dominated by Islamists pushing for a Muslim Brotherhood government after Assad. 'We think this is a majority view, at least among those who are fighting in the streets,' the official said."

That seems highly likely. Assad is an Alawite, a secretive minority sect that split from mainstream Shiism about 1,000 years ago. Assad's regime is dominated by Alawis, who are estimated to make up about 10 percent of the country while the country's majority faith is Sunni Islam, a community that has long felt like second-class citizens in their own land and his turned to Islamist movements in the past to fight the central government. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, crushed an uprising against him led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when he sacked the city of Hama, killing at least 10,000 of its residents.

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What I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, mainstream Sunni Islamism has long been a dominant strain of opposition politics and resistance in Syria and remains so today. Rebel commanders use religious language and banners in their propaganda videos, many of them grouped within the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a patchwork of rebel factions. There are, of course, many supporters of the uprising who favor a more secular form of government. But if the US is actually waiting for a day of clarity over what ideology or person will come to control the insurgency, that day will never come. It's a blend of forces and agendas at play on the rebel side.

Jihadis

There are also Islamist militants of a darker color, from a US perspective, at work in Syria. Jihadis more in the style of Al Qaeda are also operating inside the country. Veterans of the war against the US in Iraq have been involved in attacks on government forces, bringing with them the skills honed in building powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around Iraqi cities like Fallujah to target Assad. There have also been persistent, though difficult to confirm, reports of rebels executing government forces that surrender to them, with Alawi soldiers far more likely to be killed than fellow Sunnis. 

These fighters often stand apart from the FSA. Time's Rania Abouzeid reported from the town of Saraqeb, along the highway from Aleppo to Damascus, earlier this month that the Ahrar al-Shams Brigade was fighting alongside FSA members there. The Shams Brigade is composed of Salafis – members of the austere form of Islam embraced by Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda who are particularly hostile to US interests. Suicide bombing has been at least an occasional tactic. Last week Assad's deputy defense minister and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was among those killed in an attack on a strategy meeting at a Damascus military building that the government said was carried out by a suicide bomber. Also killed were Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and former defense minister Hassan Turkmani, with the interior minister surviving.

The FSA said the bomb was planted in the meeting room and suicide was not involved. But this was far from the first claim of suicide bombings. In April, alleged suicide bombings in Idlib killed eight people. And a group calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra took responsibility for at least three suicide attacks in Damascus earlier this year. FSA spokesmen have insisted that any suicide bombings against the government have been carried out by the regime itself in an effort to paint the opposition as dangerously radical.

Perhaps. But it's hard to imagine that hard-core jihadists like the ones who flooded into Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 aren't at work in Syria. Just as they poured across the Syrian (and other borders) into Iraq, foreign fighters have been entering Syria to fight Assad and the hated Alawites, joining up with like-minded Syrians. How many of them are there and how important are they to the fight against Assad? That's probably one of the data points US officials are struggling with.

But if the recent history of Iraq is anything to go by, they're likely to become more important the longer the war drags on. And as in Iraq, a true sectarian bloodbath – with Alawites and perhaps Syria's Christian minority in the cross-hairs of Al Qaeda-style militants – is a real possibility. 

Marc Lynch wrote earlier this week at Foreign Policy that whatever hopes there ever were for Syria's war to end in a negotiated settlement look to be well and truly over and that he expects the conflict to grind on dangerously.

Nor should the US be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources.  All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the Op-Ed hawks, remain as intense as ever.  There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier.  Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the US with great influence over the groups they are.  I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways.  As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don't give them guns, you'd best not give them guns.

That paragraph deftly captures both what is unknown but more importantly what is known: The chance is real that Sunni jihadis deeply hostile to US interests will get their hands on weapons the US supplies to the uprising. In fact, I'll go further and say it's likely, an irony that should be lost on no one who watched officials insist for years that the US had to stay in Iraq to defeat precisely those kinds of people (though they're not exactly defeated in Iraq now either). 

To be blunt, I think the US intelligence community knows this. The Washington Post article touches on this, with an "administration official" saying the US is concerned about blowback (never mind that the Post gets it wrong when it writes the US armed "militias in Afghanistan that later morphed into Al Qaeda;" the US actually armed different militant groups in that country's war against the Soviet Union).

Help and consequences

Fear of blowback, and being held responsible for any horrors that might follow a collapse of the Syrian regime in Syria, are precisely the things that are staying the administration's hands, not simply a lack of knowledge. Obama faces a policy and political question that has no good answer. A direct US invasion is off the table, doing nothing will allow a war that is taking a ruinous toll on civilians to drag on, and arming the rebels is likely to have very unpleasant consequences. And he has an election coming up.

The Obama administration is still hoping that Assad will fall soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his fall as "inevitable" today and said the US "has to work closely" with rebels to draw up plans to secure the country's chemical weapons and to protect against reprisal killings on the day after.

"We're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable," she said. "It would be better if it happened sooner both because fewer people would die or be injured, but also because it would perhaps prevent sectarian retribution."

Note the use of her word "perhaps" in that sentence.

None of this is to try to turn reality on its head and suggest Assad is the "good guy" and the rebels the "bad ones." The depredations of the Baath regime –the torture centers, the mass executions, the pervasive abuse of citizens for daring to speak their minds – are legendary. That history has contributed mightily to the tragic situation Syria finds itself in today.

But we know enough now to understand how truly dangerous Syria has become.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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