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

It's hard to believe, but so say anonymous officials in a Washington Post article published yesterday.

By Staff writer / July 24, 2012

This image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Sunday, July 22, purports to show a Free Syrian Army solider holding his weapon in Aleppo, Syria.

Ugarit News via AP video/AP

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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.

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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.

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.

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