Syria is reorganizing its foreign intelligence operations and sidelining officials with unsavory pasts in an effort by President Bashar al-Assad to consolidate control and improve Syria’s relations with the United States, Middle East specialists and former and current U.S. officials say.
Richard Norton, a Levant specialist at Boston University, former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro and two serving U.S. intelligence officials who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to talk to the press told The Washington Times that the task of overseeing Syria’s foreign intelligence operations has been transferred from the heavy-handed military intelligence agency, known as the Mukhabarat, to Syria’s General Intelligence Agency (GI), which formerly handled domestic matters and now oversees relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The GI is headed by Gen. Ali Mamluk, who is advised by Samir al Taqi, a former legislator, the sources said. Mr. al Taqi runs the Al-Sharq Center for International Relations in Damascus and is associated with the Center for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
The intelligence shakeup began in February and continues. Mr. Cannistraro said much of the pressure for the transfer “came from the Saudis,” who have been furious with Syria since the 2005 assassination in Lebanon of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Saudi ally. Syria is suspected of involvement in the killing but has denied responsibility.
Mr. Norton added that the change was made by Syria to avoid “queering its current dialogue with the United States.”
In general, the functions of Syrian military intelligence appear to have narrowed to providing assistance to the U.N. special tribunal investigating the Hariri murder and seeking to shield the Assad regime from blame.
Gen. Assef Shawkat, Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law and the former head of Syrian military intelligence, who is rumored to have been involved in the Hariri killing, has been assigned to assist Maj. Gen. Arnine Charabi, chief of the Palestine section, who is working with British law firms to develop a scenario of the crime aimed at exonerating Syria from responsibility, according to the two serving U.S. intelligence officials.
There have been reports that Mr. Shawkat’s family, including Mr. Assad’s sister, Bushra, has been exiled to a Persian Gulf country and much of the familys property has been seized. However, one of the U.S. officials said this was disinformation.
Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, said, “Shawkat is not out of the intelligence business.”
The shakeup appears to be an attempt by Mr. Assad to further consolidate his power internally.
“We’re talking about a changing of the guard, being done quite gradually in terms of political consistency,” said one of the serving U.S. officials. “It’s a transition of power - a slow process of putting people who are loyal to him, walking away from the old military elements of his father and relying on a civilian component instead.”
Mr. Norton agreed.
“What Bashar is doing is sidelining the old Ba’athist guard in military intelligence and replacing them with civilians loyal to himself,” Mr. Norton said.
Mr. Norton added that the changes are part of the president’s efforts to consolidate Syria’s key governing institutions under his direct control and that this was evidence that at least some of Mr. Assad’s inner circle consists of “reformist, smart, street-wise young technocrats” who want better relations with the West.
President Obama, who has assigned a high priority to advancing an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, has sought to improve relations with Syria in order to move the process forward.
Yet the U.S. has not yet named a new ambassador to Damascus despite earlier pledges to do so, and the administration still objects to Syrian support for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group and political party that is also backed by Iran.
In Lebanon, the administration is disappointed that months have gone by without formation of a new government despite the election victory of a pro-Western alliance. Yet Mr. Norton said he had not detected any “Syrian string-pulling” in the Lebanese elections in which the pro-West coalition beat an alliance led by Hezbollah.
Mr. Norton also said Syria is loosening its grip on Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has obtained a degree of autonomy and is no longer a Syrian client,” Mr. Norton said, adding: “Syria is no longer obtrusive in Lebanese politics and no longer is pulling the strings when it comes to Hezbollah.”
Many remain skeptical of Syrian good will
David Schenker, a Levant expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “Syria runs hot and cold. When they are interested in improving relations or pleasing us, they toss us a bone or they look to protect their flank.”
He said that the day after the Hariri murder, Syrian intelligence delivered a high-value target to U.S. operatives in the hope of deflecting popular outrage at Syria’s alleged responsibility for the murder.
“Its pretty typical,” he said.
According to Mr. Cannistraro, “Syria has tried to cooperate with the United States in intelligence matters, only to be either snubbed or ignored” on occasion. He said Syria in 2003 offered to station U.S. forces on its soil before the Iraq war, and the Syrians opened their intelligence books, which identify assets in Europe, including front companies, in an attempt to track down al Qaeda members.
Mr. Cannistraro added that Syria “has given us invaluable help in hunting down members of al Qaeda, and they were instrumental in ex-filtrating some major Iraqi fugitives back to Baghdad after the 2003 war.”
Two former U.S. intelligence officials said Syria cooperated with the United States last year in an attack that killed Abu Ghadiyah, a former lieutenant of the infamous Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late al Qaeda leader in Iraq. He was killed along with eight civilians near Abu Kamal about five miles inside Syria, foiling a planned attack on Iraqi civilians, according to the former U.S. officials. They spoke on condition that they not be named because they were discussing sensitive information.
The CIA would not confirm the account.
“We do not, as a rule - despite the inaccuracies that sometimes appear - comment on reports of relationships with foreign intelligence organizations,” said a CIA spokeswoman, Marie Harf.
U.S. officials say Syria still permits some Arab suicide bombers to transit into Iraq and controls much of Lebanon’s economy by means of counterfeiting, money laundering and drug trafficking.
“Those things are endemic to the way Lebanon is run,” said former CIA official Judith Yaphe. All sides of every political persuasion take part.”
Behind the scenes, according to Mr. Norton and Mr. Landis, however, U.S.-Syria relations are improving slowly.
Representatives of U.S. Central Command recently visited Damascus, followed by another U.S. military delegation that discussed border security and increased intelligence-sharing. According to Mr. Landis, Syria and Washington are also talking about easing U.S. sanctions against Syria.
Mr. Landis cautioned, however, that while there are people in Mr. Assad’s inner circle who want closer ties with the United States, “the Syrians don’t think that Obama can change the Middle East. Intelligence-sharing is good, and dialogue is constructive, but we will keep trying to force them out of Lebanon and killing Hezbollah, and Damascus will hang on to Iran and its ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, and Israel will cling to the Golan.”
In other words, all of this “could go nowhere,” he said.
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