Secret Russian spy base in Syria seized by Western-backed rebels

Screenshot from FSA videoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Rebel forces aligned to Syria’s Western-backed opposition have announced the seizure of a joint Syrian-Russian spy base, which observers say reveals the extent of Russia’s intelligence cooperation with Syria. The base is located at the base of the Tel Al-Hara Mountain, in southern Syria’s Golan Heights region, just south of the border crossing with Israel in the now largely destroyed Syrian city of Quneitra. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it took over the spy base on Sunday, following several weeks of fighting against rival groups, including Syrian government soldiers and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The FSA said the base, referred to as “Center C” by Russian intelligence, had been under Russian command until it was abandoned at a time and for reasons that remain unknown. In a three-minute video released by the Western-backed rebel group on YouTube, an FSA officer appears to be guiding the cameraman around part of the seized base. He points to several diagrams and captions on the walls, which are both in Arabic and in Russian. At some point in the video, the seal of Syrian intelligence is clearly visible, placed next to the seal of the GRU’s 6th Directorate, the branch of Russian military intelligence that is tasked with collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT). At another point in the video, a series of photographs can be seen that depict Syrian and Russian intelligence officers working together in gathering and analyzing intelligence. Interestingly, one of the walls in the base features a map of northern Israel, an area that is adjacent to the Golan Heights, and appears to show the location of Israeli SIGINT stations and military encampments. It is unclear when exactly the spy base was abandoned by the Russian and Syrian intelligence officers that staffed it, Read more of this post

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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

Syria denies Air Force intelligence chief assassinated

Jamil HassanBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A Syrian state-owned television channel has denied reports that the head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence has been assassinated by one of his aides. The government-controlled al-Dynya TV called reports about the assassination of Lieutenant Jamil Hassan “absolutely false”. However, unlike Syria’s Vice-President, Farouq al-Sharaa, who appeared on television yesterday to dispel rumors he had defected to Jordan, Hassan made no such appearance. Earlier on Sunday, sources affiliated with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network that Lieutenant Hassan had been killed in his office in Syrian capital Damascus. Born into a prominent military family in the western city of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city and site of some of the worst violence in the ongoing Syrian uprising, Hassan belongs to the country’s Alawite community. It is the same Syrian-based branch of Shiite Islam that counts the country’s President, Bashar al-Assad, as its member. Hassan is believed to be a key member of the Syrian military and a close advisor of the President. Opposition forces consider Hassan a hardline supporter of the Assad regime and charge him with leading the ‘iron fist’ caucus inside the Syrian government. A Syrian opposition source once quoted Hassan as telling Assad: “let me kill a million protesters to end the revolution and I will go to [the International Criminal Court in] The Hague in your place”. Although this quote remains anecdotal, there is little doubt that Hassan’s vocal support for the Assad regime has repeatedly attracted the attention of the opposition FSA, which sees him as one of the most vicious and criminal elements inside the Syrian state. Read more of this post

Germany, UK, share intelligence with Free Syrian Army [updated]

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Two newspapers alleged over the weekend that German and British spy services routinely share critical intelligence on Syrian government troops with rebel forces in the country. In a leading article, German newspaper Bild am Sonntag claimed yesterday that Germany’s intelligence activities in Syria were far broader than officially acknowledged. The paper quoted an unnamed official from Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), who said that the country “can be proud of the significant contribution we are making to the fall of the Assad regime”. Also quoted in the article was an unidentified American intelligence official, who claimed that “no Western intelligence service has such good sources inside Syria as Germany’s BND”. According to Bild, the BND collects most of its intelligence on Syria through a number of ships, equipped with signals intelligence platforms, stationed in international waters off the Syrian coast. These ships can collect data on Syrian troop movements as far inland as 600 kilometers, or 400 miles. The collected data is then forwarded to BND officers stationed at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Adana, Turkey, who are also tasked with intercepting radio messages and telephone exchanges between members of the Syrian government and/or military. The information is then passed on to members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the primary armed force engaged in a fierce civil war against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Also on Sunday, the London-based Times newspaper quoted an unnamed FSA official as saying that the rebel forces are routinely given intelligence by British spy agencies. The official told the paper that “the British are giving the information to the Turks and the Americans and we are getting it from the Turks”. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #778 (analysis edition)

Lieutenant-General Zahir ul-IslamBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Some rules restrain Mossad’s work in Iran. It is widely believed that at least four assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran were carried out in recent years by Mossad operatives. The perpetrators were part of an elite unit within Israeli intelligence, called Kidon, founded in 1972 to avenge the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, by any means necessary. But veteran Israeli intelligence correspondents Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman argue that the Kidon is not technically a ‘lawless’ organization; it has to comply with a set of “unwritten regulations” adopted by Israel’s secret agencies fifty years ago.
►►Are US and Pakistani spy agencies starting to get along? The relationship between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been at the core of Washington and Islamabad’s alliance for over a decade now. But over the past two years, as suspicions have grown, the two sides had become near adversaries. After months of relations languishing at an all-time low, Pakistan and the US may now be opening up a fresh phase of engagement. Following US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent apology for the loss of 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border checkpoint last November, NATO supplies are rumbling through again. Washington has also released funds for Pakistani military operations it had previously withheld. And, perhaps most crucially, the two fractious allies’ top spies are said to be talking again. New ISI Director Zahir ul-Islam (pictured) visited Washington for talks earlier this month.
►►Why the US isn’t arming Syria’s opposition –yet. Up until this point, the only thing the US has owned up to is providing humanitarian assistance and communications equipment to Syrian opposition groups. A report earlier this month revealed that US President Barack Obama signed a secret “finding” in July, which allows the CIA to take action in Syria, but does not include lethal support. In other words, the US won’t be sending in Seal Team Six to take down Assad any time soon, but it is training certain groups to handle and gather intelligence. Why is that?

Opposition fighters leave Syrian Free Army to fight for al-Qaeda

Syria's Deir ez-Zor governorateBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Few outside Syria’s pro-government Alawite and Christian communities share the regime’s claim that it is fighting a war against Islamist terrorists. Clearly, the core membership of the Free Syrian Army consists of rebels whose grievances against the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad are primarily ethnic and political, not religious. At the same time, it would be equally naïve to disregard the documented existence of several armed Islamist groups currently operating all over Syria. A case in point is the Deir ez-Zor governorate, one of Syria’s largest provinces, which borders Iraq. Al-Qaeda-linked groups have operated in that region for at least a decade, far from the reach of the government in Damascus or the United States military stationed across the border in Iraq. The Syrian uprising has breathed new life to the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Eastern Syria. One of the most active such groups is  Jabhat al-Nusra, which translates into English as “Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant”. Al-Nusra, known informally as “Solidarity Front”, is widely considered al-Qaeda’s main branch in Syria. It has hundreds of members in Deir ez-Zor’s towns and cities, including in Mohassan, where Solidarity Front vehicles can currently be observed patrolling the streets while bearing the black banners of al-Qaeda. British newspaper The Guardian, whose editorial position is unreservedly in support of the Syrian uprising, has managed to place one of its special correspondents, Iraqi-born Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, inside Deir ez-Zor. While there, the journalist met a senior Jabhat al-Nusra commander who goes by the name Abu Khuder. A former Syrian army officer, Abu Khuder was one of the first Syrians in Deir ez-Zor province to join the Free Syrian Army. He soon quit, however, accusing the Free Syrian Army of operational ineptness and amateurism. He soon joined Jabhat al-Nusra, whose core leadership consists of hardened veterans of the Iraqi insurgency against the US military. According to Abdul-Ahad’s report, Abu Khuder now leads a Jabhat al-Nusra battalion calling itself “the strangers”, after a well-known Islamist madih (poetic eulogy) that celebrates al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s operations in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. He told The Guardian that his “clear instructions” from the al-Nusra leadership are to actively assist the regional command of the Free Syrian Army, whose members he meets “almost every day”. Read more of this post

Turkey denies reports of intelligence officers arrested in Syria

Turkish-Syrian borderBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The Turkish government has denied reports in the Israeli media that dozens of Turkish intelligence officers have been arrested and are under interrogation in neighboring Syria. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported over the weekend that at least 40 Turkish intelligence officers had been captured by the Syrian military and were being questioned. The paper also claimed that Syrian military interrogators had extracted “confessions” from the captured Turkish officers, according to which they were operating on instructions to “carry out bombings” in Syria, and other operations aimed to “undermine the country’s security”. Citing Syrian sources, Ha’aretz also said that the Turkish intelligence officers “admitted” having been trained by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, and that the Mossad also trains members of the opposition Free Syrian Army. The Israeli daily also said that Ankara and Damascus have been involved in “intensive negotiations” over the fate of the 40 Turkish intelligence officers. According to Ha’aretz, Syria has offered to release the Turks, providing Ankara extradites scores of Syrian defectors —most of them from the military— who have been given political asylum in Turkey during the past few months. Damascus reportedly also insists that Turkey takes immediate steps to prevent the smuggling of weapons and military supplies to the Free Syrian Army through its territory. But in a brief press statement on Monday, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said that the report in Ha’aretz was “incorrect”. Turkish newspaper Zaman also quoted anonymous Turkish intelligence sources who flatly refuted the reports from Israel. Read more of this post

Turkish intel officer arrested for abducting Syrian defector

Hüseyin Mustafa HarmuşBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
There seems to be no end in sight to the troubles of Turkey’s spy service. According to reports from Ankara, an employee of the country’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) has been arrested for orchestrating the abduction of a leading Syrian military defector, who had sought refuge in Turkey. According to authorities in Ankara, the MİT employee, who has been identified only by his initials, Ö.S., had been under surveillance for nearly half a year, along with four of his collaborators. Last week, Turkish police arrested Ö.S. in connection with the abduction of Colonel Hüseyin Mustafa Harmuş, one of the most senior Syrian military officials to have defected to the opposition, and the founder of the Free Syrian Army. Harmuş, who defected from the Syrian military in June of 2011, had crossed the border into Turkey and was living in a camp set up and supervised by the Turkish government in Hatay, a province in south-central Turkey. Following his defection, Harmuş became one of the most vocal and media-savvy members of the Syrian opposition, frequently directing strong public criticism of the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government responded by declaring Harmuş a traitor and offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. Then, all of a sudden, Harmuş disappeared without a trace on August 29. After a detailed investigation, Turkish authorities found that Ö.S. had assembled a team of four people who collaborated to kidnap Harmuş, deliver him to the Syrian government, and pocket the hefty reward. By utilizing his access to Turkish government communications, Ö.S. forged a letter authorizing him permission to escort Harmuş to another camp in Turkey’s Anatolia region. Upon gaining custody of the Syrian defector, Ö.S. delivered him to two of his collaborators, who in turn handed him over to the Syrian authorities. Read more of this post

Senior army defector says Syrian military near collapse

Mustafa al-SheikhBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The most senior defector from the ranks of the Syrian military has said in his first full-length media interview that the Syrian armed forces are too weak and demoralized to continue fighting after the end of this month. General Mustafa al-Sheikh served in the Syrian military for 37 years, before he made the decision last November to join several other senior Syrian defectors, who have crossed into Turkey, where they have been given refuge. General al-Sheikh told British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph that, if not handled properly, the imminent collapse of the regime of Bashar al-Assad will “explode across the whole region, like a nuclear reaction”. Commenting on the current condition of the Syrian military, he said that today it relies on only about 40 percent of its hardware and 32 percent of its human personnel. The remaining two thirds of its troops consist of mostly Sunni officers, who have either been arrested, have defected to the so-called Free Syrian Army, or not permitted to participate in combat, due to mistrust by the government. This situation has forced the Assad regime to rely primarily on members of its own Alawite minority for its military operations. Because of their small numbers and untrained members, the Alawites tend to operate more as a militia than an army, according General al-Sheikh. The dramatic reduction in the size of the Syrian army is preventing the Syrian government from asserting control over several towns in the country, and there are allegedly even suburbs of Damascus now being effectively controlled by anti-government forces. The Telegraph correctly notes, however, that, his detailed knowledge of the Syrian military aside, General al-Sheikh is far from a neutral observer. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #630

Riad Al Assad

Riad al-Assad

►►Senior Syrian military defector in Turkey denies training troops. Colonel Riad al-Assad, who acts as head of Syria’s military defectors, has denied a news report that he crossed the border from Turkey to Syria to command troops loyal to the opposition force called the Free Syrian Army. “News reports that appeared on a number of Internet sites that I had crossed into Syria to command troops there are false. I am in Turkey at the moment, in a safe place,” he told the Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on Tuesday.
►►Iran says missile base blast was not caused by Mossad. Iran has insisted that last weekend’s huge blast at the Alghadir missile base at Bid Ganeh, 30 miles to the west of Tehran, was not carried out by Israel or the US, despite widespread reports that it was the work of the Israeli secret service, the Mossad. The explosion killed 17 of the country’s elite revolutionary guards, including Major General Hassan Moqqadam, a senior commander described as the pioneer of the regime’s missile programme.
►►British official says MI6 foiled Libyan assassination plan. British intelligence foiled a plot by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s forces to assassinate Western diplomats and Libya’s revolutionary leadership, Britain’s Foreign Secretary has disclosed. In a rare speech about the secret services, William Hague said the Libyan intelligence service launched a “sustained effort” to conduct suicide and car bomb attacks against the National Transitional Council, but that “the attacks were prevented”.

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