Syria: Crisis and Intervention

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Syrian forces’ bombardment of Homs reached new levels of brutality last week, posing a major dilemma for Western governments. With reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilians sparking international outrage, there were clear echoes of the civil war in Libya a year ago. But as revolutionary fighters in the region have repeatedly asked for outside assistance, nations including Britain and America have been hesitant to directly intervene. This, some believe, means "back-channel" covert action from Western forces is increasingly inevitable - and could already be underway.

The situation in Syria hit crisis point two weeks ago, when embattled leader Bashar al-Assad’s military began shelling the city of Homs in the west of the country. Though Assad denied responsibility, activists said hundreds of civilians – including many children – died in the attacks, while some of the few journalists on the ground reported seeing some of the most gruesome scenes since unrest began in the country in January 2011.

Shortly after the wave of bombings commenced, on 4 February, a United Nations (UN) resolution to remove Assad from power was tabled. The resolution was quickly vetoed by China and Russia, allies of the Assad regime, dashing hopes of a quick solution. Yet while the international community failed to reach a consensus on how to respond, some reports have suggested unofficial, secret efforts are already underway to assist revolutionary forces – known as the Free Syrian Army – on the outskirts of the country.

Late last year, an article appeared in respected Paris publication Le Canard EnchaĆ®ne – France’s version of British investigative magazine Private Eye – containing leaked information. Quoting senior military intelligence sources, it reported that British and French secret services were already at work in northern Lebanon and Turkey, establishing contacts with Syrian soldiers who had fled after defecting from Assad’s army. It added that French special operations teams were “already prepared, in Turkey, should they get the order, to train these deserters in urban guerrilla warfare.”

This revelation was compounded by a series of details divulged by former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Philip Giraldi in December. Citing insider sources, Giraldi, who served in the CIA for 18 years, wrote in a US magazine that the agency was actively assisting Syrian dissidents and rebels in the region, and that unmarked planes had been used to fly in small arms seized from toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. According to him, the arms were distributed to Syrian anti-government fighters from a US airbase in Adana, southern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

“I’m fairly confident that there has been what the intelligence community calls ‘a finding’ on Syria, which has authorised the intelligence and special ops elements to undertake operations basically against the Syrian government,” Giraldi says, speaking to me on the phone from Virginia in eastern America. “That means the White House is on board saying that we will be doing things that will be deniable but which we approve of.”

America is known to have wanted regime change in Syria for some time, as it considers the country a state sponsor of terrorism. A secret US government document published by whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks in 2011 revealed that as recently as 2006 the US was plotting to undermine the Assad regime. The document, authored by a US diplomat in Damascus, noted: “If we are ready to capitalize, they [the Syrian regime] will offer us opportunities to disrupt his [Assad’s] decision-making, keep him off balance, and make him pay a premium for his mistakes.”

With this in mind, Giraldi believes it is “implausible” to think US special forces are not already operating in Syria, and cites it as one of what he calls America’s “secret wars”, which cause him concern. Questioning the wisdom of getting involved in a conflict in the country, he argues that very little is known about the fragmented Syrian rebel forces and their motivations. This reflects a much wider fear that, if Assad is to fall, the militias – made up of differing religious groups – could turn on each other in the struggle for power, leading to even greater bloodshed.

“When you don’t know what you’re getting in to, you would probably be better served by not doing it,” Giraldi says. “It could well be that the British, French and American governments know a lot more about Syria than we do, but I don’t know about that. I was in the intelligence profession and I know how thin this stuff can be.”

The pattern developing in Syria appears similar to how the civil war unfolded in Libya last year. Both before and after a UN resolution imposed a no fly zone over the country, secret intelligence agents from both Britain’s MI6 and America’s CIA were known to be on the ground. MI6, accompanied by elite Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers, reportedly helped direct airstrikes, met with Libyan rebel leaders and gathered information about the locations of key Gaddafi military sites.

According to former SAS officer Robin Horsfall, the role of elite British soldiers was crucial in helping rebels topple Gaddafi. Horsfall, who served for six years as part of the elite unit and took part in the Iranian Embassy Siege in London in 1980. He believes, like in Libya, UN forces or “subversive support” will be essential for any successful overthrow of Assad. But he doubts British special forces are currently engaged directly in helping Syrian fighters given the current stalemate over the UN resolution.

“To be seen to be training a cadre of revolutionaries and supplying them with information and weapons in a place like Turkey, where there is free movement of the press, would be a huge political risk and I don’t think they’d be inclined to do that right now,” he says. “There may well be special forces, as there always are, moved close to any flashpoint in the world. But in reality they’re not doing anything. They’re probably close to the theatre [of war] practicing for any eventuality.”

Though Horsfall thinks there is not likely to be British soldiers within the country, he says the presence of British spies is likely. “One of the eventualities that they [the SAS] will be preparing for without any doubt is the evacuation of any diplomats, any VIPs... Also agents – people use the word 'diplomats' but often they are agents working for MI6, who are intelligence gatherers.”

He adds: “The great thing now is with mobile phones and the internet, the risks that spies have to take are far less difficult. The main reason being that information is freely available and transmittable from every street in Syria, which is to the great disadvantage of Assad and his regime.”

As bombs continue to rain down on Homs at the time of writing, one of the few certainties about the unfolding Syrian crisis is that there will be more violence. Anti-Assad fighters say they will settle for nothing less than his removal from power – but Assad himself shows no sign of leaving without an almighty fight. If the conflict continues on this path, and a peaceful solution is not negotiated, it certainly seems likely that small teams of elite western soldiers – if they have not yet done so – will help train, arm and coordinate rebel fighters.

“The reality is, I would be very surprised if that sort of back-channel activity wasn’t already happening,” Lord Williams, formally the UN’s most senior official in the Middle East, told the BBC last week. “I would expect the services of some countries to be involved... I think that, in consultation with Turkey, there is scope for further action in that regard.”

The Syrian Regime

Led by 46-year-old president Bashar al-Assad, Syria is considered an authoritarian, military dictatorship. Assad came to power in 2000 as leader of the Arab socialist Ba'ath Party, succeeding his father, Hafez, who died unexpectedly in a car crash after 30 years of rule. Prior to taking the helm of the country, Assad trained as an ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. He is married to a British woman, Amsa, an ex-investment banker.

Under Assad’s rule – as it was under his father’s – Syria has a state controlled media, and political dissent in the country has been historically quashed, often violently. The country has a 250-seat legislative People's Council and a judiciary, but no independence between the branches. Additionally, the president heads, appoints and fires the council that hires the judges.

Syria is officially a secular state that recognises Islam as the majority religion, with around 74 per cent of Syrians Sunni Muslims. Alawites, a minority Shiite sect, account for about ten percent of the population – including President Assad himself. Christians of various denominations make up ten percent of the population, while Jews and Druze make up about three percent each.

Anti-Assad Uprising

Protests first began in Syria on 26 January 2011, as part of a wave of uprisings across the region – most notably in Tunisia and Egypt. From March 2011 onward, the protests increased at a rapid rate, and spread nationally. The demonstrators, in keeping with demands made in neighbouring countries during the unrest, called for an end to Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian Ba'athist rule along with greater political freedoms.

Widespread civil disobedience was eventually met with brutal acts of attempted suppression by the regime, which sent in tanks, shut off electricity and ordered snipers to shoot people in the hope of discouraging the uprising. By July 2011, a number of soldiers from the regime’s military defected and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight against Assad’s rule. The FSA’s commander urged others to "defect from the army, stop pointing their rifles at their people's chests, join the free army, and form a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects."

By January 2012, the FSA had taken control of its first city – Zabadani, in south west Syria. The force also reportedly took control of Douma, a suburb near capital city Damascus, and claimed to control around two thirds of Homs prior to a bombardment by government forces which began in early February. With only small arms at its disposal, The FSA has been powerless to defend itself against heavy artillery and tank fire.