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16 Mar, 2013 11:47

Drone strikes in Syria? CIA ‘boosting’ intelligence force to ‘size up’ Syrian extremists

Drone strikes in Syria? CIA ‘boosting’ intelligence force to ‘size up’ Syrian extremists

The CIA may be preparing for lethal drone strikes in Syria, as it is extending its intelligence-gathering on Islamic radicals in the country, US media has reported. At the same time, US officials are pressing for the supplying arms to rebels.

“The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes,” according to current and former US officials, reported in the LA Times.

The agency’s counterterrorism center has recently transferred an unspecified number of targeting officers to the area. The center is notorious for its previous drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan.

Targeting officers are responsible for the compilation of large packages of information on specific zones. Those working on Syria are currently based at the organization’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as not many US operatives have been deployed to the area.

The increased focus on identifying threats in Syria carries the implication that the agency is preparing plans for counter-action – both violent and nonviolent – against potential militants, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“If we do this, why don't we start droning people in Hezbollah?”
a former CIA officer with experience in Iraq told the Los Angeles Times. “It opens the door for a lot of other things.”

A Syrian opposition fighter rubs dust from his face in the Jabilleh neighbourhood of the eastern city of Deiz Ezzor, during clashes with regime forces as they try to retake the area on February 16, 2013.(AFP Photo / Zac Baillie)

Top Dem: ‘Training and arming Syrian rebels to benefit US’

In a trend apparently countering the CIA’s alleged security efforts, a US lawmaker is set to propose a bill on Monday in support of providing arms and training to Syrian opposition forces, as well as economic backing. Should the arms be delivered, they could easily fall into the hands of the same militants they seek to suppress.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to his house colleagues seeking their support for a bill to provide arms and training to Syrian rebels, applying pressure to the Obama’s administration.

"US training and arming of carefully vetted Syrian opposition forces offer many potential benefits, but two stand out above all: Bringing the humanitarian disaster to an end as soon as possible and helping ensure that the US has a constructive relationship with a successor government in Damascus,” said the letter obtained by AP.

The idea is supported by officials from both parties – last month, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio suggested providing the Syrian opposition with ammunition, and Secretary of State John Kerry announced a package of ‘nonlethal assistance.'

European media reported that the US, UK and France are already training rebels in Jordan, while Paris and London are both attempting to bring forward an EU meeting to lift the arms embargo on Syria. Planned for May, the two countries are pressing for it to take place before the end of March.

If the union does not end the embargo, the two nations will still arm the Syrian rebels, France said.

However, this course of action could come with its own problems: “Weapons are in high demand by all rebel factions and there is little means to effectively prevent arms from gravitating toward hardcore Al-Qaeda fighters,” political analyst Nile Bowie told RT.

On Saturday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU must think “very carefully” about lifting the arms embargo, as it could make a political settlement to the Syrian conflict more difficult.

"Would putting weapons into the field make it more or less likely that others will do the same? What would be the response of Assad based on what we know about his response so far? Would it stop people being killed or would it kill people faster?" AP quoted her as saying.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that any arming of the opposition in Syria would be a violation of international law.

On Friday, Syria witnessed the second anniversary of the uprising from which the conflict sprouted, with many saying they feared for the country’s future.

A rebel fighter holds his rifle as he poses in front of a Soviet-made tank T 55 tank abandoned by the pro-Syrian regime forces in the Christian village of al-Yaqubia in northern Syrian, on February 2, 2013.(AFP Photo / Aamir Qureshi)

US allows individuals and businesses to aid Syrian rebels

The US Department of the Treasury has allowed the country’s citizens, companies and banks to transfer funds and provide services to the Syrian opposition. At the same time, all transactions with forces loyal to President Assad are prohibited.

"The United States is committed to supporting the Syrian people's aspirations for a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, inclusive, and peaceful Syria," the Treasury said in a statement on Friday.  “The Syrian government has sacrificed all legitimacy in its violent attempts to cling to power."

"Export, re-export, sell or supply, directly or indirectly"
are now authorized to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, who are the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” the Treasury said.

Washington officially recognized the Syrian opposition in December last year, having already provided the Coalition with nearly $500 million in non-military aid.