A small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, U.S. officials and Arab intelligence officers said.
The weapons — including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some anti-tank weapons — are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries, including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said. The U.S. has said it isn’t providing arms to the rebels, but it has also acknowledged that Syria’s neighbors would do so.
The CIA officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep arms out of the hands of fighters allied with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior U.S. official said.
The clandestine intelligence-gathering effort is the most detailed known instance of the limited U.S. support for the military campaign against the Syrian government. It is also part of Washington’s attempt to increase the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has recently escalated his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule.
With Russia blocking more aggressive steps against the Assad government, the U.S. and its allies have instead turned to diplomacy and aiding allied efforts to arm the rebels. At the same time, the U.S. is seeking to pressure Russia to curb arms shipments like attack helicopters to Syria.
By helping to vet rebel groups, U.S. intelligence operatives in Turkey hope to learn more about a growing, changing opposition network inside of Syria.
“CIA officers are there, and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people,” said one Arab intelligence official who is briefed regularly by U.S. counterparts.
U.S. officials and retired CIA personnel said the administration was also weighing additional assistance to rebels, such as providing satellite imagery and other intelligence on Syrian troop movements. The administration is also considering whether to help the opposition set up a rudimentary intelligence service.
Spokesmen for the White House, State Department and CIA wouldn’t comment on any intelligence operations supporting the rebels.
According to members of the Syrian National Council and other opposition activists, Turkish army vehicles last month delivered anti-tank weaponry to the border, where it was then smuggled into Syria. The U.S., these activists said, was consulted about these weapons transfers.
The Pentagon continues to fine-tune a range of military options, after a request from President Barack Obama in March for such contingency planning. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators at that time that options under review included humanitarian airlifts, aerial surveillance of Syria’s military, and the establishment of a no-fly zone.
The military has also drawn up plans for how coalition troops could secure Syria’s sizable stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons if a civil war threatened their security.
But U.S. officials have stressed that they aren’t actively considering military options. “Anything at this point vis-a-vis Syria would be hypothetical in the extreme,” Dempsey told reporters this month.