June 22, 2012

Turkey, the CIA and Syria - upping the ante

Syrian rebels with folding-stock AK-47 assault rifles

So, it's just not our government that is afflicted with intelligence leaks. The latest revelations not only are sourced to American officials but also to Arab intelligence sources. I suspect in this case, Arab refers to the Saudis, who have been out front in supporting the Syrian opposition with the three things you need for any successful insurgency: money, weapons and training.

According to the reports, a small group of CIA officers are operating "secretly" in southern Turkey. I added the quotes around secretly since that descriptor is now overcome by events. The officers are there to make sure the weapons being provided by countries that are providing lethal aid - not the United States - are not falling into the wrong hands inside the Syrian opposition. In other words, they are trying to make sure that weapons only go to certain Syrian groups.

While that sounds like a good idea, it's is unrealistic. Once we provide the weapons to the opposition and they are moved into Syria, there is no effective control over them, unless we are willing to send our officers into Syria with them. That does not appear to be the case, at least not yet. I would not be surprised that if we have not already inserted CIA or special operations troops into Syria, we will do so in the near future.

The misguided notion that we can control who gets the weapons perpetuates the fantasy that the United States is not providing "lethal" assistance to the Syrian opposition forces. We are directly providing medical supplies, communications gear, advice and of course, money. Money is a fungible commodity - it is moved easily and once dispersed is virtually impossible to track. So who knows what they are buying with the money?

Of course, the government claims that they have assurances the opposition is not buying weapons with our money. So, the opposition buys nonlethal things with our money and uses the Saudi money that they would have had to spend on those nonlethal things - freed up by our contribution - to buy weapons. It's a kabuki dance that we have done for years all over the world.

According to the Arab intelligence officer, "CIA officers are there, and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people." Yes - that's what intelligence services do; this is why we have intelligence agencies. This should come as no surprise to anyone - I would be shocked and disappointed if we were not doing these things.

And to make the situation in Syria even more tense....

Turkish air force RF-4ETM Simsek (Lightning) reconnaissance aircraft

Syrian air defense forces shot down a Turkish air force F-4 operating from Erhac air base in southern Turkey. Erhac is home to both F-4 fighter-bombers and the unarmed RF-4 reconnaissance version. I suspect this was a reconnaissance flight from the 173rd Squadron flying along the Syrian border collecting intelligence on the situation inside Syria. This intelligence collection may be in support of the potential future imposition of a no-fly zone of parts of northern Syria.

The Turkish RF-4 has excellent standoff sensors, so there would be no reason to violate Syrian airspace. The aircraft are equipped with the Israeli-made Elbit Condor-2 electro-optical and infrared long range oblique photography system and the Israeli-made Elta EL/M-2060P synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator systems. These state-of-the-art systems are exactly the types of sensors an intelligence collection manager would want to use to monitor events in Syria.

The aircraft was supposedly shot down near Ra's al-Basit, which is about five miles south of the Turkish border on the Mediterranean coast. The border in this area, although well-marked on the ground, is irregular and takes sharp twists and turns. The pilots may have inadvertently cut one of the corners too close for the Syrians. Since Syrian surface-to-air missile brigades do not fire without higher authorization, the Syrians knew what they were doing.

Even if the Turkish plane was over the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast, geopolitics come into play here. Although there is a border, the Syrians do not recognize it. The area, called the sanjak of Alexandretta, is claimed by both countries. After diplomatic squabbling between the French and Turks during the period of the League of Nations mandate in the region, the area became part of Turkey in 1939. I remember attache functions in Damascus in which the Turkish attaches would storm out of the gathering if the Syrians displayed a map with the sanjak as part of Syria (which they always did).

It gets better. While most countries, including Turkey, recognize territorial waters and airspace as limited to 12 nautical miles from shore, Syria claims it territorial waters and airspace extend to a distance of 35 nautical miles. The aircraft could have been in what Turkey (and the United States) recognizes as international airspace, while Syrian authorities believed they had entered Syrian airspace.*

If the Europeans and Americans are looking for an excuse to declare a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, or intervene in some other manner, today's shoot down of a Turkish air force aircraft constitutes an attack on a NATO nation. The other NATO nations are obligated by treaty to come to Turkey's defense.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians are going to be killed or wounded before the world acts to stop the Bashar al-Asad regime. Today's events only highlight the hair-trigger situation.

* From time to time, the United States Navy sails warships and flies combat aircraft along the Syrian coast (as we did off Libya for years) to demonstrate our right to be in these international waters. Thus far - and intelligently - the Syrians have not challenged these freedom-of-navigation operations.