With Friends like These

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Giglio

Why Syria's rebels are turning on the CIA.

In midaugust, 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. …