Did the CIA Betray Syria’s Rebels?

Aleppo, as seen through a rebel sniper’s rifle scope earlier this year. Thomas Rassloff/dpa/Corbis

In mid-August, a well-connected Syrian activist drove to the border city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey to meet two officers from the CIA. The officers had set up shop in a conference room at a luxury hotel, where representatives from a handful of opposition groups lounged in the lobby, waiting for their turn at an audience.

The activist, who had been a journalist before the conflict, came with three colleagues from Aleppo, the Syrian commercial capital that had recently turned into the main theater of the war. Inside the room, two casually dressed Americans were rolling up maps from the previous meeting. The Americans introduced themselves as CIA officers and said they were there to help with the overthrow of Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The activist declined to be named for this article, because he didn’t want to be connected publicly to U.S. intelligence. He is respected in Aleppo, and I first met him, in another southern Turkey hotel, at a State Department–funded training seminar for activists, where he was a keynote speaker. According to the activist, the officers questioned the group about creeping Islamism in the rebel ranks. Were Aleppo rebels supportive of democracy? Hostile to the West? What about al Qaeda? Then the officers asked how they could help. The activists wanted armed support for the rebels in Aleppo—in particular, surface-to-air missiles—but the officers explained that America worried such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists. “Let’s leave military matters aside,” one of the officers said. The group made a list of things like satellite phones and medical supplies, and the officers promised to be back in touch soon. “We are here to help you bring down Assad,” one of the officers repeated.

However, in the months since, that activist, as well as many senior figures in the rebellion, have begun to suspect that the United States has no intention of living up to its promises. In a turn of events resonant of Iraq, many who had once been eager to work with the Americans feel betrayed, and some see meetings like those in Gaziantep as little more than a hostile intelligence-gathering exercise.

At the time of the meeting, the war against Assad had been intensifying, and the big question was whether the international community would step in to help the rebels with weapons or even a no-fly zone. In the absence of an intervention, official U.S. policy was to provide only nonlethal support—and that policy remains. But in Gaziantep, sources said, the CIA officers blurred that line.

I spoke with three of the men present when the rebel battalion Liwa al-Fatah met with the CIA in August, just before the Aleppo activists were in the room; two of them—Haytham Darwish, a defected Syrian colonel who led the battalion at the time, and a civilian liaison named Ali Badran—agreed to let me use their names. The men said the officers proposed a two-step plan. First, they would supply Liwa al-Fatah with telecommunications equipment. If the rebels proved reliable, weapons would then be sent their way. The officers didn’t say who would provide the weapons, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two U.S. allies, were known to be channeling support to rebel groups. “They said, ‘We can’t promise you now, but in the future, the weapons will be there,’” one of the meeting participants told me. “Which is a promise, actually.” The officers, these rebels added, said the communications equipment would arrive in a matter of weeks.

The Gaziantep meetings had been arranged by Firas Tlass, a Syrian businessman who once had deep ties to Assad. Tlass’s father, Mustafa, had been the country’s feared minister of defense for three decades, while his older brother, Manaf, was a close friend and top aide to Assad before a highly publicized defection in July. Firas Tlass had done well under Assad, but he too had switched sides, vowing to spend his own money to help fund the revolution.

In a phone interview in January, Tlass told me he had been present at the meetings with the Aleppo activists and the Liwa al-Fatah rebels, and he confirmed their accounts. He said that he had arranged a number of similar meetings with the CIA, and that promises like the ones the officers made in Gaziantep were commonplace—including the indirect promise of arms. “They promised to provide telecommunications devices, and afterward, if the rebels proved effective and honest, then they would [help] provide military support,” he said. Tlass told me that the Americans had kept none of those promises, that not even the communications equipment or hospital supplies had materialized. He then accused America of pushing a dark agenda in Syria—working to keep the war going instead of helping with the overthrow of Assad. “America,” Tlass said, “is trying to prolong the Syrian revolution.”

Aleppo, Syria Destroyed government tanks in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo. Moises Saman/Magnum

In June anonymous U.S. officials leaked word to The New York Times that CIA officers were in southern Turkey vetting rebel groups to determine who might receive support from American allies. But Tlass’s suspicion echoed those of many senior rebels and opposition members I spoke with, who had become convinced that rather than help them receive support, America was mainly in the business of keeping it from coming their way.

One influential opposition figure, who is well connected to senior rebels and, like Tlass, once had ties to the Syrian government, said that he’d recently cut off his CIA contacts; while he still considered some officers to be friends, he complained that he was losing credibility among his rebel sources for the broken promises that came from the meetings he’d arranged. “The Americans are using the lies to get information,” he said. “If you ask any rebel in Syria right now, he will say America is our enemy.” He added that officers had even asked him to make a list of rebel officers who could be trained to fire surface-to-air missiles but nothing had apparently ever come of it. (This narrative was echoed by a prominent rebel commander who also told me he’d recently submitted such a list to his CIA contacts at their request. He too was still waiting, though he was more optimistic, and said he thought he detected a new seriousness in the U.S. promises to help. “This is the last chance for America,” he said.)

A broad spectrum of rebel groups is fighting in Syria, and CIA officers may have kept their promises to some. Still, I interviewed a number of senior opposition members and rebel commanders based in Turkey and Jordan—and operating out of northern and southern Syria—and all complained bitterly of either broken promises or a general lack of U.S. support.

Some analysts who have been in close contact with the Syrian opposition say that antipathy toward America has lately spiked. Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, told me that many rebel and opposition leaders have lost faith in their American contacts. “I’m afraid there are people who just don’t want to waste their time with U.S. intelligence any more. There have been a lot of broken promises,” Shaikh said. “The levels of anger and mistrust are off the charts. And I’m not sure it’s redeemable.” Shaikh said he suspects that some quarters of the U.S. government believed that the Syria policy would eventually become a more aggressive one. But, he added, “I think that the guys at the top are very reluctant.” CIA officers on the ground in Turkey may likewise have expected a green light that hasn’t come.

The movement of arms in southern Turkey operates in a fog. Opposition supporters collect money and arms from sympathetic individuals and governments, then send them across the porous border. When rebels do receive weapons, they often assume that the shipments have the stamp of U.S. approval, since they seem to arrive with the permission of America’s Turkish allies. (When I asked an official with the Turkish Foreign Ministry about the shipments this past summer, he replied, “Just because the weapons are coming from Turkey doesn’t mean that Turkey is the one providing the weapons.”) But even the rebels who receive these weapons remain suspicious of American intentions.

One recent evening in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, I sat in a small cellphone shop owned by a local man named Malik Dalyan. As usual, the shop swarmed with Syrian rebels and activists buying more phone credit. My translator struck up a conversation with one of the regulars, who invited us to accompany him to the border for a weapons drop that night. We agreed and waited in the man’s house for the lead smuggler, drinking beer.

Aleppo, Syria A rebel in a makeshift jail in Aleppo, guarding suspected pro-Assad forces. Moises Saman/Magnum

At around 10 p.m., a man with luxuriant, long gray hair and a matching beard entered the house in a crisp gray suit. His name was Abdulrahman al-Halaq, but the rebels know him as ZaZa, one of the area’s most powerful smugglers. It became clear that the night’s weapons drop had an aura of legality around it so I asked ZaZa if he approved of my plans to come along. “Even if you were my own brother, I would kill you if I saw you there,” he said.

ZaZa said most shipments consisted of machine guns, and that heavy weapons and surface-to-air missiles had never materialized. He also said that even these weapons were in short supply—just enough, in his estimation, to keep the balance from tipping to either side. “They give us 10 bullets so that when we run out we have to come back for more. If they gave us 20, we could advance, but they don’t want that,” he said. “They just want to balance the power of the regime.”

Like many shipments, ZaZa added, the upcoming one had instructions for how it should be distributed inside Syria. He wouldn’t say where he got his orders, but he believed they had the mark of Turkish intelligence, and by extension the CIA. He scoffed. “Neither Turkey nor America can control where the weapons go,” ZaZa said. “The rebels distribute them however they like.”

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