US delegation met secretly with Syrian intelligence chiefs, newspaper claims

Ali MamloukA delegation of senior American government officials met secretly with Syria’s spy chiefs in an effort to lay out the terms of a possible deal between Washington and Damascus, according to a Lebanese newspaper. Relations between the United States and Syria have been strained since the late 1950s, when Damascus blamed Washington for a failed coup and expelled America’s ambassador there. In 2012, the US shut down its embassy in the Syrian capital in response to the government’s violent suppression of protests. Since then, Washington has carried out missile strikes on Syrian soil at least twice, while openly supporting armed groups that are opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a group of senior American officials held a secret meeting in Damascus with Syrian spy chiefs. If true, the move could signify a major shift in US-Syrian relations. The paper, which supports the pro-Assad Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, and is close to the Syrian government, published news of the alleged meeting on Tuesday. It said that the meeting took place in complete secrecy during the last week of June and that it was facilitated by intermediaries from Russia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter used a UAE government airplane to fly the US delegation —whose names Al-Akhbar did not reveal— to the Syrian capital. The visiting delegation, which according to the paper “included [senior] officers from many US intelligence and security agencies”, was transported to a secret Syrian government facility in the dead of night by “a huge procession of black SUVs”, said the paper. The Syrian delegation at the meeting was reportedly headed by Ali Mamlouk, special security adviser to President al-Assad and head of the National Security Bureau of the governing Ba’ath Party. Other participants from the Syrian side included Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, director of the General Security Directorate, and Muwaffaq Asaad, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed Forces, said Al-Akhbar.

During the meeting, the two sides allegedly attempted to lay out the foundations of a possible post-civil war deal between Washington and Damascus. According to the Lebanese paper, the US delegation offered to withdraw American Special Forces from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. In return, they allegedly asked for the removal of Iranian troops from Syrian regions that are adjacent to the Israeli border. The two sides also discussed the resumption of intelligence sharing on matters relating to Sunni radicals operating in Syria. No decisions were taken during the meeting, said Al-Akhbar, but the two sides decided to continue to share proposals and ideas about a possible bilateral agreement.

The French news agency Agence France Presse said on Tuesday that it could not independently confirm Al-Akhbar’s claims, as its attempts to contact the US departments of State and Defense were not fruitful. It noted, however, that both Mamlk and Zeitoun feature on the US government’s list of sanctions against Syrian government officials that are believed to have directly participated in human-rights abuses against political opponents since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2018 | Permalink

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Judge rules that Trump’s tweet did not disclose top-secret CIA operation in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyA United States federal judge ruled on Monday that a tweet by President Donald Trump did not inadvertently disclose a top-secret program by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid rebel groups in Syria. The lawsuit, brought by The New York Times, centered on news reports published in 2017 by Reuters, The Washington Post, and others, claiming that the US president had terminated an extensive CIA program that provided assistance to rebel forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. The program was reportedly initiated by US President Barack Obama, who in 2015 instructed the CIA to assist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Aside from training, the CIA assistance reportedly included the provision of light and heavy ammunition, such as antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

But President Trump allegedly terminated $1 billion program soon after he took office. Last July, the president openly disputed an account by The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, which claimed that Trump had ended the program as a concession to Russia. In a tweet, Trump said: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad”. Shortly afterwards, another newspaper, The New York Times, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, arguing that the president’s tweet had effectively disclosed the existence of the covert CIA program and seeking full details from the government. But the CIA rejected the The New York Times’ rationale, at which point the paper took the case to court.

But on Monday, US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. dismissed the paper’s argument. In a 20-page decision, posted online by the US-based news website Politico, Judge Carter said that President Trump’s tweet had been too vague and ambiguous to be considered as effectively declassifying the secret CIA program. At no point did the US president “make an unequivocal statement, or any statement for that matter, indicating that he was declassifying information”, said the judge. Additionally, Trump’s tweet and other public statements on the matter did not undermine the legal authority of the US government to continue to keep details about the CIA program under wraps. According to Politico, which reported on Judge Carter’s decision, this development will make it difficult for other FOIA filers to use Trump’s tweets as justification for seeking information about secret government programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Monday that it would seek to appeal Judge Carter’s decision.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 July 2018 | Permalink

Outgoing CIA director acknowledges US killed ‘couple of hundred’ Russians in Syria

Mike PompeoThe outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, appeared on Thursday to confirm reports from last February that United States troops killed more than 200 Russian soldiers in Syria. According to sources from the US Pentagon, the armed confrontation took place on February 7, when a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. US-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimated at the time that over 100 attackers had been left dead, with another 200-300 injured. The toll later rose to several hundred dead.

At a press conference held soon after the armed clash, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said at the time that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”. On Thursday, however, Pompeo appeared to acknowledge that US troops killed hundreds of Russians in Deir al-Zour. The outgoing CIA director was speaking before a committee of the US Senate, during a hearing pertaining to his nomination to serve as the next US secretary of state. He was making the point that the administration of US President Donald Trump had maintained a hardline policy on Russia. After referring to the recent expulsions of 60 Russian diplomats from the US, Pompeo said: “in Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple of hundred Russians were killed”.

Pompeo’s comments were seen by the media as an acknowledgement by a senior US government official of the incident in Deir al-Zour, which has remained shrouded in mystery since it happened. Later in his speech, Pompeo said that the Kremlin had “not yet gotten the full message about US determination to block aggression from Moscow. We need to continue to work at that”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 April 2018 | Permalink

Syria sought out and assassinated American journalist, former spy says

Marie ColvinThe Syrian government tracked down and killed American journalist Marie Colvin in order to stop her from reporting about the Syrian Civil War, according to a Syrian intelligence officer who has defected to Europe. Colvin was an experienced war correspondent who worked for The Sunday Times. The British newspaper sent her to Syria soon after the outbreak of the war. From there, she gave live interviews to media outlets such as CNN and the BBC. But on the morning of February 22, 2012, Colvin was killed along with French war photographer Remi Ochlik. Their death came when Syrian government forces repeatedly shelled a media center in the city of Homs, which housed the two reporters.

In 2016, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a lawsuit against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming that Colvin’s death was deliberate and wrongful. The lawsuit is supported by Colvin’s family in the United States. Court records unsealed on Monday include a sworn testament by a Syrian former intelligence officer who has defected and now lives under a new identity in an undisclosed European country. The defector, codenamed ULYSSES, said that Colvin was assassinated by the Assad government as part of a concerted effort to hunt down Western journalists and local media correspondents. The ultimate purpose of the plan was to hinder international reporting about the war. The plan was allegedly carried out by the Syrian military under the guidance of the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Many of the reporters targeted for assassination were reporting from the city of Homs, where Colvin was killed.

According to ULYSSES, Syrian government forces began targeting the Homs media center after they found out that foreign journalists had managed to enter the city’s western sector from nearby Lebanon. They then employed a mobile satellite interception system to capture the journalists’ communications, which in turn revealed their precise location. At that point, Syrian troops were ordered to fire several missiles at the building housing the journalists, in full knowledge that Colvin and Ochlik were inside. In his testimony, ULYSSES claimed that Syrian intelligence officials “celebrated” when they were told that Colvin had been killed. He identified eight senior Syrian officials who he said were involved in planning the American journalist’s alleged assassination. One of them, said ULYSSES, was Maher al-Assad, President Assad’s brother, who leads the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, considered as one of the staunchest pro-government parts of the Syrian military. Testimonies in the case continue this week.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 April 2018 | Permalink

Conflicting reports of Russian fighters killed by US forces in Syria

Kurdish SDF There are conflicting reports of Russian and Ukrainian fighters having been killed by American forces in northeastern Syria, with some sources claiming that up to 200 Russians and Ukrainians, most of them private contractors working for the Syrian government, were left dead in clashes last week. If such reports are accurate, they could point to the most lethal American-Russian confrontation since the end of World War II.

According to the United States Department of Defense, the armed confrontation took place on February 7. On that day, a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria. A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Thomas F. Veale, told reporters last week that the pro-government forces crossed the Euphrates near the town of Khursham, in Syria’s Deir al-Zour region. The town is firmly held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish armed faction that is supported by the US. Veale said that the Syrian government forces advanced in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars”. The SDF force in the area, which includes embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimates that over 100 attackers were left dead, with another 200-300 injured. There were allegedly no SDF fatalities during the clash.

On February 8, CBS News cited an unnamed US Pentagon official, who claimed that Russians were among the dead in Deir al-Zour. The BBC said that “at least two Russians” were killed in the attack, while The New York Times raised the toll to “perhaps dozens”. But US news network Bloomberg claimed that over 200 Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainian mercenaries were among the dead. Citing anonymously “three Russians [and] one US official […] familiar with the matter”, the network said that most of the fatalities were Russian and Ukrainian private contractors who were fighting in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. These reports mark the first known instance of Russian citizens killed by American forces in Syria. If the Bloomberg account is accurate, the Deir al-Zour clash could be the most extensive armed confrontation between Americans and Russians since the end of World War II.

Bloomberg said that it spoke by phone to one Russian military contractor who said that “dozens of his wounded men” were still receiving treatment at military hospitals in Russia. On February 8, the Syrian government accused Washington of carrying out a “brutal massacre” in Deir al-Zour, but said nothing about foreign fighters. A statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense said that 25 Syrian troops were hurt in the attack, but denied that Russian soldiers had participated in the February 7 clashes. Speaking on behalf of the Kremlin, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow only tracked casualty data about its official military forces stationed in Syria. He added that no Russian forces were stationed in Deir al-Zour. At a press conference last week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2018 | Research credit: N.L. | Permalink

Syrian rebels visit Washington to request resumption of CIA assistance

Free Syrian Army delegationA delegation of Syrian rebels is currently in Washington to ask that that United States President Donald Trump authorizes the Central Intelligence Agency to resume giving them military assistance. In 2013, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the CIA to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. The CIA promptly began to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose goal was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained FSA fighters and gave them light weaponry. But in July of last year, President Trump abruptly terminated the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”.

Now the FSA has sent a delegation to Washington to argue that, if the CIA does not help them, Iranian-backed militias will dominate much of Syria. On Monday, the Reuters news agency quoted Mustafa Sejari, a senior representative of the FSA, who said that the Syrian delegation had met with US Congress members and White House officials. This week they were hoping to speak with representatives from the Departments of State and Defense, said Sejari. Members of the delegation, Sejari told Reuters, “asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support”. He added that, if the US “is serious about challenging growing Iranian influence in Syria” by Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, it should resume its support of the FSA. Sejari also described Mr. Trump’s decision to end TIMBER SYCAMORE as “damaging”. The FSA, he said “endorse[s] President Trump’s statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action”. We went on to claim that “until now on the ground it’s the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance”.

Shortly after President Trump announced his decision to terminate CIA support for the FSA, some experts warned that the move could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations, if only to secure sources of income. In late August, it was reported that US troops deployed in Syria had exchanged fire with former FSA rebels that were now led by Turkish-trained commanders. In a related development, the government of Turkey dismissed on Monday plans by the US military to train members of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as “terror army” tactics. The US-led coalition in Syria said that it planned to train a 30,000-strong SDF force as a professional army that could maintain control of the territories captured last year from the Islamic State.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 January 2018 | Permalink

Defector claims US agreed to let thousands of Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

Islamic State convoy in SyriaA senior former commander of one of Syria’s largest Kurdish rebel groups, who recently defected to Turkey, has accused the United States of agreeing to let thousands of heavily armed Islamic State fighters escape from Raqqa in exchange for conquering the city without a fight. The Syrian city served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State from early 2014 until October of this year, when it was captured by a coalition of forces supported by the United States and other Western powers. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish militia, was among the groups that captured Raqqa. One of its spokesmen, Talal Silo, told Western media correspondents back in October that the Western-backed coalition had allowed fewer than 300 hardline fighters of the Islamic State to leave the war-ravaged city during the final stages of the battle.

But several news agencies reported at the time that a large convoy of vehicles was seen leaving Raqqa, composed of dozens of trucks, buses and over a hundred cars. The BBC reported on November 13 that the convoy was 4 miles long and was seen heading toward Deir ez-Sor, an Islamic State stronghold located two hours’ drive southeast of Raqqa. Coalition partners, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, denied that such a convoy existed. But the BBC’s claims have now been corroborated by Silo, the same SDF spokesman who last October rejected them as fictional. In October, Silo, who is a Syrian Turkoman, defected to Turkey and is now living in Ankara under heavy security protection. He told the Reuters news agency in a recent  interview that the BBC’s claims were correct, and that the number of Islamic State militants who were allowed to leave Raqqa with their weapons were in their thousands, not 300 as the SDF had originally claimed.

According to Silo, a secret agreement was reached between the Western-backed coalition and the Islamic State for the evacuation of “about 4,000 people” from Raqqa. Of those fewer than 500 were unarmed civilians, said Silo. He added that the convoy went to Deir ez-Sor, which at the time was still under the control of Islamic State. The SDF defector also told Reuters that the deal struck with the Islamic State was kept secret from media correspondents. The latter were told that they were not allowed to approach Raqqa due to heavy fighting, when the real goal was to prevent them from witnessing the peaceful departure of the Islamic State convoys. According to Silo, the deal was approved by all members of the Western-backed coalition, including the United States.

On Thursday, the SDF denied that Silo’s allegations were true and claimed that he was being pressured to make them by Turkey. The Turkish government accuses the SDF of being a Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), with which it is at war. American military officials also denied Silo’s claims, calling them “false and contrived”. The officials said that the US “does not make deals with terrorists”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 December 2017 | Permalink