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23 Mar, 2013 09:33

CIA trains and spies for Syrian rebels – report

CIA trains and spies for Syrian rebels – report

Some Syrian rebel groups get training and intelligence straight from CIA officers, US officials told media. The helping hand is meant to bolster the secular opposition against both governmental troops and Islamist forces.

The CIA’s increased involvement in Syria is part America’s greater engagement in the war-torn country, according to The Wall Street Journal. The spy agency has selected some small rebel units from the Free Syrian Army to receive combat training and fresh intel they can act upon, the newspaper says, citing unnamed US officials and rebel commanders.

The training is provided by the CIA, working together with British, French and Jordanian intelligence agencies. The rebels are taught to use various kinds of arms, including anti-tank weapons. They are also schooled in urban combat tactics and counterintelligence tactics. 

The experience will supposedly help them stand against the professional Syrian army, which scores victories against the armed opposition thanks to both more advanced weapons and better organization.

The rebels are also receiving fresh intelligence collected by the CIA, which they can act upon at short notice. The extent of the info provided remains in secret, but the US can potentially provide what they gather trough satellite and signal surveillance as well as intelligence coming through exchanges with Israeli and Jordanian agencies.

The CIA is said to keep this part of dealing with the rebels limited, withholding sensitive types of information, like the suspected locations of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.

Free Syrian Army fighters from Katibat al-Farouk training on the outskirts of Idlib (AFP Photo/Shaam News Network)

The US spy agency was previously working in Turkey vetting rebel groups for receiving arms shipments from Gulf monarchies. The effort aimed at preventing the weapons from being funneled to Islamists had mixed results, the WSJ says. The CIA also works with Iraqi counterterrorism units to counter the flow of Islamist militants across the border to Syria.

The White House has been reluctant to send combat-worthy equipment to Syrian rebels, despite calls inside the US and from Gulf and some European countries to do so. It is concerned that those would end up in the hand of the more powerful Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist force, the Nusra Front. Unlike arms, the intelligence from CIA is operationally useful for a short period of time and would not be traded for years to come, a US official explained.

Washington’s concern over the growing influence of the Nusra Front was reiterated on Friday by President Barack Obama, as he was visiting Jordan as part of his Middle Eastern tour. 

“I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism because extremists thrive in chaos, they thrive in failed states, they thrive in power vacuums,” Obama said after meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

The Nusra Front is believed to be responsible for the bloodiest bombings in Syria over the past months. The latest such attack was the assassination of Mohammad Buti and influential Sunni preacher and supporter of the Syrian government. Buti was killed on Thursday along with some 50 others when a car bomb was detonated near a Damascus mosque.

The US is reportedly gathering intelligence on Nusra Front commanders and fighters for a possible campaign of targeted drone killing similar to those the CIA wages in Pakistan and Yemen and the Pentagon in Afghanistan.