News you may have missed #876 (analysis edition)

Russian troops in UkraineBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Why did Obama not bomb Syria? In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya. Last August, after the sarin attack in Syrian capital Damascus, he was ready to launch an allied air strike to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.​ But with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was later postponed. Why did Obama relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? Award-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh argues that the answer lies in “a clash between those in the Obama administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous”.
►►What is the role of the FSB in the Ukrainian crisis? On April 4, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry sent a note to Moscow demanding to know why FSB Colonel General Sergei Beseda visited Kiev in February. The very next day Russian news agency InterFax cited a source in Russian intelligence confirming that visit. Beseda heads the FSB Fifth Service’s Operational Information Department, which is responsible for conducting intelligence activities focusing on the former Soviet republics. Agentura.ru intelligence analyst Andrei Soldatov says that the answer as to why Beseda was in Kiev could be key to understanding the role of Russia’s intelligence agencies in the current crisis and to the Kremlin’s entire strategy in Ukraine.
►►What would a US-Russia war look like? The chances that the US and Russia will clash militarily over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine are very, very slim. But, says The Week’s Peter Weber, if we learned anything from World War I, it’s that huge, bloody conflicts can start with tiny skirmishes, especially in Eastern Europe. So what would a US-Russia war look like? The US is much wealthier than Russia and spends a lot more on its military. That doesn’t mean a war would be easy for the US to win, though, or even guarantee a victory. As Napoleon and Hitler learned the hard way, Russia will sacrifice a lot to win its wars, especially on its home turf.

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News you may have missed #867 (Syrian uprising edition)

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Al-Qaeda breaks link with Syrian militant group. Al-Qaeda’s general command said on Monday it had no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in an apparent attempt to reassert its authority over fragmented Islamist fighters in Syria’s civil war. The move is likely to bolster a rival Islamist group, the al-Nusra Front, as al Qaeda’s official proxy in Syria. The switch is seen as an attempt to redirect the Islamist effort towards unseating President Bashar al-Assad rather than waste resources in fighting other rebels.
►►Is Israel secretly working to target al-Qaeda in Syria? Reports already indicate that Israel is providing humanitarian aid for Syrians, but do these contacts also include intelligence and military cooperation against radical groups linked with al-Qaeda? And, if so, does this mean that Israel is assisting troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
►►Australians ‘flocking to Syrian front line’. Some experts say there are more Australians journeying to Syria to participate in the ongoing conflict than any other Western nation. The number of Australians killed in Syria’s civil war is at least 15 —double the number previously reported. The claim comes from a prominent member of the country’s Syrian community. He says there is no shortage of Australian support for the Syrian rebels —and that that support is being grossly under-reported.

Newspaper retracts report of Turkish jets attacking Syrian rebels

Turkish-Syrian borderBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
A Turkish newspaper has retracted a report stating that Turkish military jets entered Syrian territory and destroyed an outpost belonging to an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, after its members attacked a Turkish military garrison along the Syrian-Turkish border. In a published correction, the paper said instead that the Turkish army opened fire from inside Turkey. Today’s Zaman, the English-language edition of Turkish daily Zaman, reported on January 29 that Turkish F-16s had entered Syrian territory and had bombed a stationary convoy of vehicles belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda-linked group that made its appearance in Syria in April of last year. The origins of ISIS are in Iraq, where it was founded in 2003 as a Sunni armed paramilitary force, in response to the invasion by the United States. In 2004, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and changed its name to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Many observers argue that, in recent months, ISIS has turned into “one of the most powerful forces on the ground” in Syria, with 7,000 well-armed fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened foreign Islamists. It is widely believed that ISIS now dominates Syria’s northwest, having established outposts in a series of “strategic towns” in the region, which are referred to by its leaders as “mini emirates”. Through these outposts, ISIS fighters are able to monitor border traffic between Syria and Turkey, and effectively control most border passages. After retracting its earlier report, Today’s Zaman said the Turkish military used “tanks and artillery fire” to attack the ISIL outpost. Read more of this post

Confirmed: Secret talks between Assad officials and Western spies

Faisal MekdadBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The BBC says it has confirmed that secret meetings have been held between Western intelligence officials and senior members of the Syrian government, aimed at “combating radical Islamist groups” in Syria. In a report aired on Wednesday, the British news agency cited “informed sources” in confirming that Western intelligence officials had visited Syrian capital Damascus. While there, said the report, the officials held meetings with security agents loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The confirmation came a day after Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, told BBC’s flagship Newsnight program that the Syrian government was cooperating with Western intelligence services against radical Islamist groups that have taken up arms against President Assad. The Syrian official told Newsnight that Western governments were “finally understanding” that there was “no alternative except al-Qaeda” to Assad’s rule in Syria, and that Western security officials were in secret contact with Damascus. Asked whether he was referring to officials from Western intelligence agencies, Mekdad said he would “not specify, but many of them have visited Damascus, yes”. He added that the al-Assad government was receiving regular requests from Western countries to have their diplomats —most of whom were withdrawn following the outbreak of the civil war— return to the Syrian capital. Read more of this post

Analysis: How al-Qaeda changed the Syrian Civil War

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
Until relatively recently, few observers believed that the government of Bashar al-Assad had a future in war-torn Syria. But the situation in the world’s most active battle zone has changed drastically in recent months, and now many suggest that the Assad forces are dominating the conflict. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Sarah Birke, a Middle East correspondent for The Economist, argues that it was the presence of al-Qaeda that changed the balance of power between the warring sides. She points the finger at the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda-linked group that made its appearance in Syria in April of last year. Since that time, ISIS has turned into “one of the most powerful forces on the ground”, with 7,000 well-armed fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened foreign Islamists. The origins of ISIS are in Iraq, where it was founded in 2003 as a Sunni armed paramilitary force, in response to the invasion by the United States. In 2004, the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and changed its name to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The United States government has pledged $10 million in return for information leading to the capture of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but with no success so far. In the spring of 2003, the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi announced the merger of AQI with the Al-Nusra Front, AQI’s branch in Syria. Since that time, the two unified groups have been commonly referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham —al-Sham being a reference to ‘greater Syria’, known also as ‘the Levant’. Birke reports that ISIS now dominates Syria’s northwest, having established outposts in a series of “strategic towns” in the region, which are referred to by its leaders as “mini emirates”. Through these outposts, ISIS fighters are able to monitor border traffic between Syria and Turkey, and effectively control most border passages. This has crippled the Free Syrian Army, which used to dominate the Syrian opposition with the help of generous donations of money and war material coming in from Turkey. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #861 (Syria edition)

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Report from Syrian city controlled by al-Qaeda. Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria with approximately one million inhabitants, is now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most powerful al-Qaeda affiliate currently operating in Syria. Since ISIS came to power in May, its abuse of Raqqa’s citizens has been well documented. On the surface, this violence appears to be indiscriminate and irrational. Yet, it is also organized and tactical.
►►US weighing closer ties with hardline Islamists in Syria. As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group’s seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week.
►►Turkey shipped tons of arms to Syria rebels. Turkey has shipped 47 tons of weapons to Syrian rebels since June despite repeated government denials, a local newspaper reported on Monday. The Hurriyet Daily News, citing UN and Turkish Statistics Institute records, said 29 tons of military equipment were sent to opposition fighters in September alone. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vociferous opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has openly supported the rebels but has always denied arming them.

News you may have missed #860

Edward SnowdenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►Top US-backed rebel commander flees Syria. General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army, who was the most senior Western-backed rebel commander in Syria, has fled the country amid growing infighting with Islamist rebels, American officials have said. The rebel military leader fled into Turkey and flew to Doha, Qatar on Sunday, after Islamist rebel groups took over his headquarters and warehouses of US-supplied military gear along the border between Turkey and Syria.
►►NSA co-worker calls Snowden ‘genius among geniuses’. Forbes magazine’s Andy Greenberg says he was contacted by a former co-worker of NSA technical expert Edward Snowden, who described the defector as “a principled and ultra-competent, if somewhat eccentric employee, and one who earned the access used to pull off his leak by impressing superiors [at NSA] with sheer talent”. The unnamed source continued: “that kid was a genius among geniuses [...], I’ve never seen anything like it”.
►►Iran claims to have captured MI6 spy. Iran says it has captured a spy working for British intelligence agency MI6 in the south-eastern city of Kerman. The head of Kerman’s revolutionary court said the alleged spy had admitted being in contact with four British intelligence officers 11 times, both inside and outside the country. He said the accused was now on trial and had confessed. The nationality of the alleged spy is not yet known. The UK Foreign Office said it did not comment on intelligence matters.

European, American, Russian fighters join both sides of Syrian war

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Nearly three years into the Syrian Civil War, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposition forces are far more fragmented than the government side. Many of the rebel factions are now largely concerned with fighting each other for control of territory and other key assets, including oil installations and cross-border trade routes. Amidst the chaos, thousands of foreign fighters are flooding into the country, motivated by ideology or money. It is estimated that between 6,000 and 11,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria since the war, causing United States intelligence officials to speak of “a growing presence of foreigners” in the ranks of armed factions. At least 300 British citizens are estimated to have traveled to Syria with the intent of joining the Civil War, according to The Times of London. Most of them are young Islamist radicals who are intent on helping topple the administration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to the paper. Another British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, reported recently that four British citizens —all London residents— died recently in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, while fighting alongside government troops in support of President Assad. They were fighting against the al-Nusra Front, an opposition group with strong links to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Wednesday that “dozens of Americans” have entered or tried to enter Syria to join various rebel factions in their fight against the government. The paper cited unnamed “American intelligence officials” in alleging that the Americans are a “small subset” of a larger group of “roughly 600” Western-born Islamists who have entered Syria from Western Europe, North America and Australia since 2011. The ongoing conflict has also attracted hundreds of Russian fighters, according to reports. Foreign Policy magazine notes the “rising flow” of radical Islamists from the Russian Federation to Syria in recent months. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #850 (Syria edition)

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►FBI sharpens scrutiny of Syrians in US. The FBI has increased its surveillance of Syrians inside the United States in response to concerns that a military strike against the government of President Bashar al-Assad could lead to terrorist attacks inside the US or against American allies and interests abroad. The US government has also taken the unusual step of warning federal agencies and private companies that American military action in Syria could spur cyberattacks, the officials said. There were no such alerts before previous military operations, like the one against Libya in 2011.
►►French spies provide details Syrian chemical weapons program. As Congress debates whether to authorize a military strike on Syria, the French government has released its declassified intelligence report on the August 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs. While the American report focuses solely on the most recent attack, the French provide a comprehensive look at the nature of the Syrian chemical weapons program. Also, while US officials have conceded that they don’t know if Assad himself ordered the use of chemical weapons, the French assessment rebuts claims that the August 21 attack could have been the work of a rogue officer.
►►Ex-CIA WMD Counterterrorism Unit chief on Syria: “We cannot afford [...] miscalculations in regard to Syria. We will launch our missiles and drop our bombs. Then we will announce the end of active operations. That will not signal the end of the war. It will signal its beginning [...]. Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah friends will begin to respond. They will do so on their timetable and only where they perceive the odds to be in their favor. Embassies will be struck. Hostages will be taken. American and Western tourists will be slaughtered. If the opportunity presents itself, we may even feel the impact here in the United States with attacks on prominent landmarks and public places”.

Israeli intelligence ‘critical’ in US case for strikes on Syria

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
As the United States prepares to make its case in support of military action against the Syrian government, there are reports that Israeli intelligence will be playing “a central role in cementing” Washington’s argument. The White House indicated this week that it is prepared to launch military strikes against Syrian government targets, following reports that chemical weapons were fired at a Damascus suburb. Western intelligence sources suggest that last week’s chemical weapon strikes killed “hundreds of people” and wounded “at least a thousand”, including many civilians. Interestingly, while the US administration of President Barack Obama is collating the evidence of the Syrian government’s complicity in the attacks, reports from Israel have identified even the Syrian Army unit that allegedly fired the chemical rounds. Late last week, Israel’s Channel 2 claimed that the attack was launched by the 155th Brigade of the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, which is known to be commanded by Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. German media reports suggest that the source of the claim was Unit 8200, the electronic interception division of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It is believed that the IDF has in its possession intercepted conversations between senior Syrian military commanders allegedly discussing last week’s chemical attack. Most analysts appear confident that Israel would play no visible part in a possible US-led military strike on Syria. But many senior Israeli cabinet ministers are voicing strong support for direct Western military involvement in the Syrian civil war. On Tuesday, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Economy and Commerce Minister, said the time for intervention had come: “it cannot be that less than 100 kilometers from Israel, children are being gassed to death and we let the world remain silent and ignore it”, he told reporters. Read more of this post

Israel spy agency has presence in Syria, says senior rebel general

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Israel is one of several countries that maintain a significant intelligence presence inside Syria, according to the top commander of the Syrian rebel forces. General Salim Idriss, Chief of Staff for the Free Syrian Army, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Jewish state has “many, many” intelligence officers in various parts of Syria. The Arab country has been rocked since 2011 by a violent civil war, which has cost the lives of at least 60,000 people. Idriss was responding to comments made earlier this week by Brigadier General Itai Brun, senior intelligence analyst for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Brun, who heads the Division for Research and Analysis of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, was speaking at a conference hosted in Tel Aviv, Israel, by the Institute for National Security Studies. He told an audience of intelligence experts that the IDF was “quite certain” that the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad had resorted to the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces on at least one instance. According to Brun, footage obtained by the IDF of rebel casualties from a March 19 attack by Syrian government forces, pointed to the use of sarin nerve gas. He referred to evidence such as the victims’ dilated pupils and “the foam coming out of their mouths” as strong proof of the use of weaponized sarin nerve gas in the battlefield. Responding to Brun’s allegations, General Idriss suggested that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons repeatedly in a variety of locations, including Aleppo, Homs, and the outskirts of capital Damascus. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #827

Brigadier General Mohammed KhaloufBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Analysis: The spies who fooled the world about Iraq. On the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, the BBC flagship investigative program Panorama has aired a documentary arguing that, even before the fighting in Iraq started, intelligence from highly placed sources was available in the UK, suggesting that the administration of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.
►►Syrian officer to auction spy files as general defects. Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah reported this past weekend that an intelligence officer that defected is offering to auction the intelligence archives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. Meanwhile, Syrian Brigadier General Mohammed Khalouf and about 20 soldiers defected from the Syrian army in two separate incidents on Saturday, according to rebel-controlled media.
►►Half a million wiretapped in Turkey in last decade. Some 470,000 people in Turkey have been subject to eavesdropping over the past 11 years, said officials from the Gendarmerie Command’s intelligence unit. In 2012 alone, over 33,000 people were eavesdropped on by the Gendarmerie, according to information given to the Turkish Parliament’s Eavesdropping Examination Commission. Notably Gendarmerie authorities said that they found no information or documents regarding the case of the wire-tapping of the Turkish Prime Minister in their examination of their own records.

[Updated] World braces as Israel attacks Syria for first time in 5 years

Cyprus, Israel, Syria, LebanonBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Alarm bells were sounding all over the Middle East Wednesday as Syria confirmed it had been attacked by Israeli military jets for the first time since 2007. It remains unclear at this point whether the Israeli airstrikes were meant to disrupt the flow of weapons to neighboring Lebanon, or whether Israel has officially entered the Syrian Civil War. Unnamed United States officials told The New York Times late on Wednesday that the Israel Air Force had entered Syrian airspace and destroyed a single truck transporting a “game-changing” cache of weapons to Lebanon. The cargo, allegedly consisting of Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, is said to have been destined for Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that controls large parts of southern Lebanon. The alleged attack occurred near Zabadani, a small town on the road that connects Syrian capital Damascus to the Lebanese border. Hours later, however, Syrian state television confirmed the Israeli attack, but said the target was a “military research center aimed at raising the level of resistance and self defense” of the Syrian nation, located near Damascus. Some Israeli media suggest that, if the Syrian government’s claims are accurate, the target of the Israeli attack would seem to have been the so-called Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, also known as CERS. Both The New York Times and Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper report that Israel informed the United States prior to launching the attack, but neither Washington nor Tel Aviv have so far commented on the airstrikes. In the absence of credible corroboration, confusion persists on whether the Israeli action was directed against Hezbollah, or meant to assist the aims of the Syrian opposition –or both. Read more of this post

Syrian President’s mother said to have ‘defected’

Anisah Makhlouf with Hafez al-Assad in 1994By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Arab media reports appeared to confirm yesterday an allegation made last week by a senior American diplomat that the mother of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had abandoned the country. Speaking to CNN last week, Ambassador Robert Ford, who served as the United States’ envoy to Syria until he was recalled by Washington in 2011, said Anisah Makhlouf al-Assad had escaped to the United Arab Emirates. The 78-year-old widow of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1970 until his death in 2000, is a revered figure among government supporters. As the current President’s mother, she is said to exercise significant influence on the Syrian regime’s core decision makers, despite her advanced age. According several reports in Arab media, Anisah has now joined her daughter Bushra al-Assad in the Emirates. Bushra, who is the Syrian President’s oldest sister, escaped with her five children to the Gulf oil state in July 2012, after her husband, Assef Shawkat, Syria’s deputy Minister of Defense, was assassinated by the opposition in Damascus along with two other senior Syrian government officials. In his CNN interview, Ambassador Ford argued that Anisah’s defection showed that, “little by little, the inner core [of the Syrian regime] is weakening” as its members are “flaking off. They themselves know they are losing”, he added. Read more of this post

Russia evacuating its citizens from Syria: A political turning point?

Busses carrying Russians arrive in LebanonBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
In a move that surprised observers, the government of Russia began on Tuesday to evacuate its citizens from Syria. Late on Tuesday afternoon, four chartered busses carrying nearly a hundred Russians, mostly women and children, arrived at the Jdaidet Yabous border crossing, which links Syria with Lebanon. As soon as they stepped on Lebanese soil in Masnaa, which is located five miles west of Jdaidet Yabous, the evacuees were met by an official from the Russian embassy in Beirut, who had been waiting for them for several hours. Russian officials dismissed rumors that this is the beginning of a mass evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria. But international observers described this development as “the strongest indication yet” that Moscow is acknowledging the eventual collapse of the regime in Damascus. Russia has persisted in its role as the strongest international backer of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011, when the Syrian uprising against his government began. But many view the Kremlin’s move to evacuate some of its citizens as “a turning point in its view of the civil war” in the Middle Eastern country. According to reports by the Associated Press, the Russians onboard the buses, which had been chartered by the Russian government, appeared to have been briefed to avoid contact with the press at the border crossing. Many covered the bus windows closest to them with curtains so as not to be photographed by journalists, and most refused to speak with press crews. The few who spoke publicly said without exception that they were simply traveling to Russia “to visit relatives”. The evacuees were taken to Beirut, where they have been scheduled to board two airplanes chartered by the Russian government, headed for Moscow. Read more of this post

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