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CIA ramps up intelligence operation to keep pace with Syria developments

 

Faced with a frustrating vacuum of intelligence on the situation in Syria, the Central Intelligence Agency is beefing up efforts here at home hoping to address that void, sources tell Fox News.

The CIA is bringing in as many analysts as possible and asking them to work longer hours than usual -- aiming to have more eyes and ears on the situation 24 hours a day. A CIA task force assigned specifically to Syria is "working round the clock" to dig up as much intelligence as they can about current developments on the ground and likely scenarios should President Bashar al-Assad's regime collapse, according to a senior intelligence official.

The boosted efforts reflect increased concern over the future of a society that has remained closed for some time, the sources said.

"Even people who 'know' Syria have a hard time figuring out what's really going on inside there," the senior intelligence official said. "This is a very fluid situation."

In particular, the U.S. intelligence community worries about a wave of ethnic cleansing should Assad fall.

"You've had a minority running the country for so long, and a lot of people will be" looking for revenge against Assad and his allies, according to the senior intelligence official.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment for this article.

There is also fear that Hezbollah-tied operatives could flood Syria and access chemical weapons.

“Given the escalation in violence in Syria and the regime's increasing attacks on its own people, we remain very concerned about these weapons,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Sunday.

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as unimaginable a scenario in which "the people who are conducting with Iran all these terror attacks around the world" obtain chemical weapons.

"It's like Al Qaeda having chemical weapons," Netanyahu said. "It's something that is not acceptable. ... We'll have to act to stop (it) if the need arises. And the need might arise if there is a regime collapse, but not a regime change."

Al Qaeda exploiting a post-Assad era is something the U.S. intelligence community also fears. Assad out of power is a "classic chance for a marriage of convenience" between Al Qaeda fighters and the loose band of rebels now fighting him, the senior intelligence official said.

In February, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri urged foreign fighters to join rebels in Syria and overthrow Assad's government, calling it a "pernicious, cancerous regime," according to the Associated Press.

At the time, a senior Iraqi security official told the Associated Press that recent intelligence revealed a flow of Al Qaeda fighters from Iraq into Syria. A senior intelligence official told Fox News that scenario is a reversal of the pipeline of foreign fighters flooding from Syria into Iraq several years ago during the Iraq war.

While the U.S. intelligence community has been alarmed by recent events bearing the markings of Al Qaeda -- such as assassinations of top Assad aides and a spike in car bombs -- the U.S. government still has limited information about what's really taking place on the ground.

Interviews by The Washington Post with U.S. and foreign intelligence officials indicate the CIA hasn't been able to establish any presence in Syria, at least in part because the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was closed five months ago and Syrian opposition groups have been unable to take control of territory that, according to the Post, could serve as a foothold for CIA teams.

The dearth of strong U.S. intelligence on the situation in Syria is a sharp contrast to the U.S. government’s recent experience in Egypt, where "we had a long-standing intelligence agreement and familiarity with all the players,” the senior intelligence official told Fox News.