A small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey to help allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the regime in Damascus, the New York Times quoted American officials and Arab intelligence officers as saying.
According to the report, published Thursday, the weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a "shadowy network of intermediaries" including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
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The officials told the New York Times that the CIA officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Washington has said it is not providing arms to the rebels, but it has also acknowledged that Syria’s neighbors would do so, the report said.
The New York Times said the clandestine intelligence-gathering effort is part of Washington’s attempt to increase the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has recently escalated his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the rebels battling his rule.
The newspaper said that by helping to vet rebel groups, American intelligence operatives in Turkey "hope to learn more about a growing, changing opposition network inside of Syria and to establish new ties.
“CIA officers are there and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people,” one Arab intelligence official who is briefed regularly by American counterparts told NYT.
'Satellite imagery, detailed intelligence.' Syrian rebels (Photo: AFP)
American officials and retired CIA officials told the newspaper that the Obama administration was also considering additional assistance to rebels, like providing on Syrian troop locations and movements. The administration is also considering whether to help the opposition set up a rudimentary intelligence service, the officials said, but added that no decisions have been made on those measures or even more aggressive steps, like sending CIA officers into Syria itself.
Meanwhile, a Syrian MiG 21 fighter jet landed in Jordan on Thursday in what opposition activists said was the first defection involving an aircraft since the start of a 15-month-old uprising against Assad.
"The plane landed at King Hussein Airbase at 11 am," a Jordanian security source told Reuters, referring to a military airport 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of the capital Amman.
Syrian state television said communication was lost with a plane of the same model at 10:34 am while it was on a training mission near the southern border with Jordan.
Earlier it was reported that Britain and the US are willing to offer Assad safe passage – and even clemency – as part of a diplomatic push to convene a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva on political transition in Syria.
The Guardian reported that the initiative came after British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama received encouragement from Russia's President Vladimir Putin in separate bilateral talks at the G20 in Mexico.
"During talks at the G20, British and American officials were convinced Putin was not wedded to Assad remaining in power indefinitely, although even this limited concession is disputed in Moscow," the British daily said.