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UN observers pull out of Syria as Western intelligence work ramps up

According to news reports, Britain and Germany are providing intelligence to Syrian rebels and looking the other way as Gulf countries provide rebels with heavy weapons. 

Muzaffar Salman/AP
United Nations observers embrace upon arrival in Damascus, Syria from Homs, as they prepare to depart the country, Monday, Aug. 20.

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Four months after entering Syria to observe a cease-fire that never took hold, United Nations monitors departed Damascus today, leaving the country in the throes of a civil war.

Reuters reports that several UN-tagged cars left a Damascus hotel this morning, carrying away the last of the unarmed observers.  Most of the observers, who numbered 300 at their peak, had already left after the mission was suspended in June.  The mission officially ended at 12:00 a.m.

"Our mission failed because the two sides did not abide by their commitments," one uniformed UN observer, who declined to be named, said at the Damascus hotel.

As the UN monitors left Syria, fighting raged across the country today, the second day of the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday.  The Associated Press writes that according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination committees, six people were killed today in Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began.  Other reports say at least seven people were killed in the town of Moadamiyeh, possibly in connection to the defection of some 30 troops and a tank to the rebels in the area.  None of the reports could be independently confirmed.

The UN's new envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, told the AP yesterday that the UN mission is further handicapped by the Security Council's split over how to handle Syria.  Both China and Russia have repeatedly used their vetoes to block Western- and Arab-supported Security Council resolutions.

"The problem is not what I can do differently, it is how others are going to behave differently," Brahimi told The Associated Press at his Paris home on Sunday.

"If they spoke in one voice and were clearly supportive of what I will be doing on their behalf, that is what I need," Brahimi said in response to what he wants from the Security Council. "Without a unified voice from the Security Council, I think it will be difficult," the former Algerian foreign minister added.

There were also two separate reports yesterday that Britain and Germany have been offering intelligence support to the Syrian rebels.  The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported yesterday that members of Germany's foreign intelligence service are monitoring troop movements in Syria from ships stationed off the coast.  Agence France-Presse quotes Bild as saying the ships are equipped with "technology allowing them to observe troop movements 600 kilometers (400 miles) inside the country," and "They pass their findings onto US and British officers who then supply the rebels with the information."

The paper also cited an unnamed US official as saying that "no Western intelligence service has such good sources inside Syria" as Germany's does.

Separately, The Sunday Times in London reported that British intelligence is passing information to the Free Syrian Army from their bases in Cyprus, located off the coast of Syria, by way of the US and Turkey. The Daily Mail reports that a Syrian opposition official told the Times (paywalled) that "British intelligence is observing things closely from Cyprus. It's very useful because they find out a great deal. ... The British are giving the information to the Turks and the Americans and we are getting it from the Turks."

The official said that the British intelligence has been particularly helpful in monitoring the advance of regime forces toward the city of Aleppo, which has become a major battleground in the past month.  The rebels were able to use that intelligence to ambush the advancing columns.

The Daily Mail notes that Britain's MI6 and the CIA are believed to be "tacitly condoning" the supply of heavy machine guns from Gulf countries to the Syrian rebels.  A diplomat denied that the British were "facilitating" the supply of machine guns, but said that he could not rule out the possibility that third parties backed by countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia were enabling such transfers.

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