The Washington Post reports: Sixteen months into the uprising in Syria, the United States is struggling to develop a clear understanding of opposition forces inside the country, according to U.S. officials who said that intelligence gaps have impeded efforts to support the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. spy agencies have expanded their efforts to gather intelligence on rebel forces and Assad’s regime in recent months, but they are still largely confined to monitoring intercepted communications and observing the conflict from a distance, officials said.
Interviews with U.S. and foreign intelligence officials revealed that the CIA has been unable to establish a presence in Syria, in contrast with the agency’s prominent role gathering intelligence from inside Egypt and Libya during revolts in those countries.
With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies.
The lack of intelligence has complicated the Obama administration’s ability to navigate a crisis that presents an opportunity to remove a longtime U.S. adversary but carries the risk of bolstering insurgents sympathetic to al-Qaeda or militant Islam.
The administration is exploring ways to expand non-lethal support, officials said.
“But we’ve got to figure out who is over there first, and we don’t really know that,” said a U.S. official who expressed concern over persistent gaps and who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters. “It’s not like this is a new war. It’s been going on for 16 months.”
The lack of clarity has also fueled anxiety among U.S. allies in the region over who will control Syria if Assad falls. Even among Arab intelligence services eager to help rebels overthrow Assad, “the vetting process is still in the early stages,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official, insisting on anonymity to discuss his country’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.
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. [Continue reading…]