With the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict in March, the pressure has been ratcheted up on the United States to act. However, it has also revealed the concerning lack of U.S. intelligence on Syria.
Former CIA case officer and current TIME columnist Robert Baer said on Monday that the lack of information about the chemical weapons attack demonstrates that the U.S. simply does not have good intelligence in Syria. Baer concludes that the U.S. is primarily collecting intelligence from refugees and data analytics, both of can be unreliable, particularly in Syria.
Baer’s conclusion should come as no surprise to those who have been following the Syrian conflict. Lack of intelligence, particularly on the Syrian opposition, has repeatedly plagued international efforts to act on the Syrian crisis.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said last week that the U.S. is increasingly having trouble understanding the Syrian opposition: "About six months ago, we had a very opaque understanding of the opposition, and now I would say it’s even more opaque."
Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, cited Dempsey’s statement to make the case that the U.S. should not militarily intervene in Syria. Gelb urges U.S. leaders to ask the "tough questions" about what we do (and don’t) know about the Syrian rebels before arming them or fighting on their behalf.
One of the major reasons that Gelb and others urge restraint is to avoid putting arms into the hands of forces that may not ultimately prove friendly to the United States. The rise of Islamist rebel groups in Syria, including an al-Qaeda affiliate, has been well-documented. The conflict has also attracted foreign fighters with Islamist ties.
It may be too late for Gelb and others to prevail. For the past year, the CIA has helped facilitate arms transfers to Syrian rebels from Turkey and a handful of states. The Associated Press recently reported that the U.S. had been secretly training Syrian rebels in Jordan, a report that the Pentagon denied. So far, however, the international community has largely refrained from giving full military support to the rebels.
The lack of full military support clearly grates on the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian opposition group with the most international support. Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib castigated the international community for their failure to prevent the crisis when he resigned as the president of the SNC on Sunday.