WASHINGTON -- A secret CIA effort to vet rebel forces fighting the Syrian government and help U.S. allies steer arms toward factions likely to be sympathetic to American interests is fraught with dangers not seen in other recent clandestine operations, policy analysts said.
Central Intelligence Agency officers reportedly have been working from southern Turkey since March to advise Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates which elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) they should arm with weaponry that includes rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles.
President Barack Obama's administration has said it is not supplying arms to the rebels battling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime. But as video and satellite imagery have documented the damage wrought in 15 months of fighting that has spiraled into a civil war, U.S. officials have ratcheted up their involvement.
Earlier this spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a package of non-lethal aid, including communications equipment to the Syrian rebels, at a conference in Istanbul. She has repeatedly called for Assad to step down.
Yet even as the administration resists pressure to take military action -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has urged a U.S.-led air war to oust Assad -- the U.S. has shown greater willingness to help proxies such as Saudi Arabia supply fighters inside Syria.
As the Wall Street Journal first reported, citing unnamed sources, "The U.S.'s stepped-up links with the FSA are also part of an effort to gain a better understanding of the rebels' capabilities and of the identities and allegiances of fighters spread in disparate groups across the country, the U.S. officials said. The U.S. officials remain wary of some rebels' suspected ties to hard-line Islamists, including elements of al Qaeda. They acknowledge the FSA doesn't represent all parts of the insurgency against the Assad regime."
Analysts interviewed by The Huffington Post said the task for intelligence officials significantly differs than in Libya, where the CIA was able to plant operatives inside the country to assess the rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi's regime. In Libya, Gaddafi was isolated and rebels held Benghazi and other cities. Assad, however, has tightened his grip on Syria's borders and supplies continue arriving from his closest allies, Iran and Russia.
"This is probably more difficult than in Libya," said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "In Syria, it's a different case. There isn't any safe ground inside Syria. No area is totally controlled by the FSA."
There also are many more elements to vet in Syria than in Libya. While the forces arrayed against Gaddafi shared "a sense of informal organization" and were limited in number, White said, inside Syria, "There are upward of 100 organizations and several hundred more exist on paper or on YouTube. Sorting out which formations are worthy of support is a challenge."
Without being on the ground in Syria, "It’s real hard for us to know who the good guys are and the bad guys are," said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University. "If we give arms to the bad guys, we’re in trouble."
By providing satellite communications equipment, night vision goggles and other logistical aid, U.S. intelligence officials are able to trace them "as dye in the bloodstream to see where it goes and if those people are trustworthy," said an analyst with years of experience in the region who asked not to be quoted by name. Those found without ties to al Qaeda and other extremist groups are then cleared to receive arms from Arab countries.
"Obviously there are tremendous challenges," said Robert Grenier, a veteran of the CIA's clandestine service and a former agency station chief in Pakistan. "You don’t want to be in the position of providing assistance to people who are committing atrocities, attacking Alawites or killing Christians and other minorities. You want to be able to assess tactics and motivations of the different elements of the rebel opposition in order to steer assistance to the relatively good and away from the relatively bad -- and get as much influence as you can to incentivize the proper behaviors."
Adams cautioned that the "risk of blowback is real" in Syria. "The sin of hubris here is real. Hubris says we can make this happen or prevent this from happening and the reality is our ability to actually direct what is happening is extremely minimal."
Grenier also said intelligence officials "are going to have to make this up as they go along," but suggested there may be no alternative if the carnage in Syria is to end.
"If you want to avoid any unintended consequences of your actions," Grenier said, "that’s an argument for doing nothing."