Beware of Tyrants Bearing Gifts: Assad and Intelligence on the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 2, 2014

An ally against the Islamic State? Not quite.

An ally against the Islamic State? Not quite.

The United States signals intelligence (SIGINT) apparatus in Syria, which monitors the communications of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has “yield[ed] unexpected intelligence over the Sunni jihadists that has helped guide American military operations in Syria and Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal print edition reported yesterday, based on high-level leaks.

The Islamic State (I.S.) has seriously curtailed its use of mobile telephones and radios, the U.S. has no direct diplomatic relations with Assad’s Syria, and the CIA “doesn’t enter [Syrian territory] due to security risks,” which leaves the U.S. with few sources of intelligence to latch onto to actually launch an airstrike against the takfiris inside Syria, and almost none to assess the damage afterwards.

This is not a problem that is going to be rectified anytime soon: “Assembling an adequate network of sources … will take about two years.”


The first thing to point out here is that the fact that the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Assad needs a very serious qualifier added to it. Iran is running the regime-held parts of Syria at this stage—and is doing much the same in Iraq—and the U.S. is engaged in de facto co-ordination, sometimes through intermediaries, with the Iranian proxy militias.

On Sept. 15, the White House press secretary himself acknowledged what was widely known: “there have been a couple of back-channel conversations” between the U.S. and Iran, though there was an insistence that this did not involve sharing intelligence. The fact is, however, that anything passed to Baghdad will end up in Tehran, and the President has bet on the Iraqi government as a partner against the Islamic State. Moreover, from the open source we know these back-channels include Secretary of State John Kerry and Wendy Sherman at the nuclear talks in Geneva; the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Brett McGurk; and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Biden’s top foreign policy advisor Jake Sullivan, who ran the secret talks with Iran that led to the “interim” nuclear agreement. As Michael Doran noted, that’s crowded for a “back-channel”. How crowded does it have to be before it’s an open-channel?

As for the CIA not risking entering Syria, this might well be taken as a summary of the CIA’s problem. It is easy to understand why: they could be killed. This has happened elsewhere too. U.S. assets were not moved into Libya to secure the new government against the chaos overtaking the place because Tripoli couldn’t fulfil the U.S. condition of guaranteeing security! The CIA has also engaged in elaborate efforts to distort its own history to try to stay out of Syria. But as ex-CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht has explained, Syria’s demography and geography made the Assad regime “vulnerable” to a serious U.S. covert operation to aid the insurgency, and the cruel truth is, “Outsiders will know such a change [toward an aggressive effort to penetrate and destroy enemies] is afoot when there are rumors of case officers’ regularly dying abroad.”


The crucial passage in the article, however, might be this:

U.S. military planners don’t have great confidence in the intercepted communications and treat them skeptically. The data primarily serve to corroborate other intelligence reports—both those based on secret and on publicly sourced information, U.S. officials said.

This suspicion is well-founded.

The targeting of the “Khorasan Group,” the al-Qaeda veterans who have gathered in Syria as a specialised cell within Jabhat an-Nusra, in the first wave of U.S. airstrikes inside Syria was justified by the claim that it disrupted  an “imminent attack” against U.S. and Western interests, a claim that seems to have receded, as well it might since the intelligence that led to that conclusion seems to have come from Iranian-tainted sources. The chance that the U.S. walked into an Iranian disinformation operation cannot be ruled out.

Further suspicion about Iran surrounds this since many of the Khorassanites, including their supposed leader Muhsin al-Fadhli, got to Syria from Iran and still received funding from Iran in ways wholly impossible to explain if the Iranian theocracy really did not want them to. Iran thrives on chaos—it keeps the governments in Damascus and Baghdad off-balance, makes them more pliable—and Tehran’s strategy of securing U.S. support for its imperial push into the Arab world needs a common enemy in the Sunni jihadists.

It is also worth considering the aftermath of the strikes against Nusra. They further exacerbated tensions within the insurgency and brought suspicion on the Syrians who were seen as defending al-Qaeda because of their fury that U.S. jets overflew Assad’s positions to bomb people who were at least fighting the dictator who has slaughtered more than 200,000 of them. The strikes also allowed the regime to pose as part of the international coalition against Salafi-jihadism, and attack “the rebel groups … Washington considers its allies” as the U.S.-led coalition attacks the I.S. in the east, further encouraging the perception that the U.S. has taken Assad’s side, demoralising the rebels and pushing people into the extremist camp convinced that external backing from Washington is not worth having, and the only other support comes from the jihadists.

Iran couldn’t have asked for more. Its proxy regime in Damascus bet on a two-pronged strategy: destroy the moderates in the insurgency and pose as the final barrier against jihadism, while trying to secure American intervention to put down this insurgency. It has essentially succeeded.

The other element that should encourage scepticism is Russia. Vladimir Putin’s regime is very deeply involved in Syria. In the wake of the Snowden Operation, Putin was able to blind NATO as he moved into Ukraine. It seems incredibly unlikely that Putin has not shared the methods of evading U.S. SIGINT with Assad. This means that it has to be considered among the possibilities that what the West can hear from Assad’s regime is what the regime wants us to hear.


As we head to a showdown over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Obama is looking to checkmate those who might oppose his signing a weak final deal with Iran or extending this “interim” deal. The provocation against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—the infamous “chickenshit” episode—is part of this, to position Obama’s enemies, as he did in January over the “interim” deal, as incorrigible warmongers. The other part is to create a perception of moderates—or at least workable elements—on the ascendency among the Iranian coalition. This story was leaked from the top. No doubt if Obama’s policy of détente with Iran is ever made public, this article will be one of the pieces of evidence for why it was the “necessary,” “realistic,” “pragmatic” thing to do.

2 thoughts on “Beware of Tyrants Bearing Gifts: Assad and Intelligence on the Islamic State

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