ANNALS OF NATIONAL SECURITY | THE SYRIAN BET
Did the Bush Administration burn a useful source on Al Qaeda?
BY SEYMOUR M. HERSH | JULY 28, 2003
On the night of June 18th, Task Force 20, an American Special Operations team stationed in Iraq, expanded its operations dozens of miles inside Syria. Military intelligence had observed large numbers of cars and trucks speeding toward the border, and senior officers suspected that the vehicles were carrying fleeing members of the Iraqi leadership. Communications intercepts had indicated that there were more Syrian soldiers congregated along the border than usual, including some officers. The military concluded, according to a senior Administration official, that “something down there was going on.” Two days earlier, one of Saddam Hussein’s closest aides, Abid Hamid Mahmud, had been captured, and told his interrogators that he and Saddam’s two sons had sought refuge in Syria but were turned back. Although the Syrian government denied knowledge of the brothers’ whereabouts, the military was now ready to cross the border to stop any future flight attempts.
Sometime after midnight, Army helicopters and Bradley Fighting Vehicles attacked two groups of cars heading into Syria, triggering enormous explosions and fireballs that lit up the night sky. A gas station and nearby homes were destroyed. Task Force 20 sped across the border into Syria. Five Syrian guards were injured and flown to Iraq in American helicopters for medical treatment, and several other Syrians were seized, handcuffed, and detained before being released.
Pentagon officials subsequently praised the nighttime mission. “I’m confident we had very good intelligence,” Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference on June 24th. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, “There were reasons, good reasons, to believe that the vehicles that were violating the curfew that existed in that area were doing it for reasons other than normal commerce.” Asked if he believed that senior Iraqi leaders had been killed in the raid, Rumsfeld said, “We’re trying to find out.”
In fact, according to current and former American military and diplomatic officials, the operation was a fiasco in which as many as eighty people—occupants of the cars and trucks as well as civilians living nearby—were killed. The vehicles, it turned out, were being used to smuggle gasoline. The Syrian government said little publicly about the violation of its sovereignty, even when the Pentagon delayed the repatriation of the injured Syrian border guards—reporters were told that the guards had not been fully interrogated—for ten days.
Weeks later, questions about the raid remained: Why had American forces crossed the border? And why had the Syrian response been so muted? An American consultant who recently returned from Iraq said, “I don’t mind so much what we did, but it’s the incompetence with which we did it.” A senior adviser to the Pentagon noted that the people who were killed had “put themselves into the gray area” by smuggling fuel across the border. “The troops were trying to work with actionable intelligence,” the official said. “You might make the same mistake.” This month, two retired veterans of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, Vincent Cannistraro and Philip Giraldi, who now consult on intelligence issues, noted in a newsletter for their private clients that the attacks had been based on “fragmentary and ambiguous” information and had led to increased tension between Rumsfeld and the C.I.A. director, George Tenet.
Tenet’s involvement was significant. American intelligence and State Department officials have told me that by early 2002 Syria had emerged as one of the C.I.A.’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, providing an outpouring of information that came to an end only with the invasion of Iraq. (A number of the details of the raid and the intelligence relationship were reported by U.P.I. on July 16th.) Tenet had become one of Syria’s champions in the interagency debate over how to deal with its government. His antagonists include civilians in the Pentagon who viewed Syria, despite its intelligence help, as part of the problem. “Tenet has prevented all kinds of action against Syria,” one diplomat with knowledge of the interagency discussions told me.
Syria is one of seven nations listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. It has been on the list since 1979, in large part because of its public support for Hezbollah, the radical Islamic party that controls much of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah claimed responsibility for, among other acts, the 1983 bombing of the American Marine barracks in Beirut, which left two hundred and forty-one Americans dead; it was implicated in the 1984 kidnapping of William Buckley, the C.I.A.’s Beirut station chief, who was tortured and murdered; and it has been linked to bombings of Israeli targets in Argentina. Syria has also allowed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two groups that have staged numerous suicide bombings inside Israel, to maintain offices in Damascus.
Nevertheless, after September 11th the Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, initiated the delivery of Syrian intelligence to the United States. The Syrians had compiled hundreds of files on Al Qaeda, including dossiers on the men who participated—and others who wanted to participate—in the September 11th attacks. Syria also penetrated Al Qaeda cells throughout the Middle East and in Arab exile communities throughout Europe. That data began flowing to C.I.A. and F.B.I. operatives.
Syria had accumulated much of its information because of Al Qaeda’s ties to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic terrorists who have been at war with the secular Syrian government for more than two decades. Many of the September 11th hijackers had operated out of cells in Aachen and Hamburg, where Al Qaeda was working with the Brotherhood. In the late nineties, Mohammed Atta and other Al Qaeda members, including Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who is believed to have been one of the organization’s top recruiters, worked on occasion at a German firm called Tatex Trading. Tatex was infiltrated by Syrian intelligence in the eighties; one of its shareholders was Mohammed Majed Said, who ran the Syrian intelligence directorate from 1987 to 1994. Zammar is now in Syrian custody.
Within weeks of the September 11th attacks, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A, with Syria’s permission, began intelligence-gathering operations in Aleppo, near the Turkish border. Aleppo was the subject of Mohammed Atta’s dissertation on urban planning, and he travelled there twice in the mid-nineties. “At every stage in Atta’s journey is the Muslim Brotherhood,” a former C.I.A. officer who served undercover in Damascus told me. “He went through Spain in touch with the Brotherhood in Hamburg.”
Syria also provided the United States with intelligence about future Al Qaeda plans. In one instance, the Syrians learned that Al Qaeda had penetrated the security services of Bahrain and had arranged for a glider loaded with explosives to be flown into a building at the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters there. Flynt Leverett, a former C.I.A. analyst who served until early this year on the National Security Council and is now a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, told me that Syria’s help “let us thwart an operation that, if carried out, would have killed a lot of Americans.” The Syrians also helped the United States avert a suspected plot against an American target in Ottawa.
Syria’s efforts to help seemed to confound the Bush Administration, which was fixated on Iraq. According to many officials I spoke to, the Administration was ill prepared to take advantage of the situation and unwilling to reassess its relationship with Assad’s government. Leverett told me that “the quality and quantity of information from Syria exceeded the Agency’s expectations.” But, he said, “from the Syrians’ perspective they got little in return for it.”
For thirty years, Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad’s father, ruled Syria through the socialist Baath Party. The journalist Thomas Friedman has described him as looking “like a man who had long ago been stripped of any illusions about human nature.” He dealt with his opponents brutally. In 1982, after years of increasingly violent terrorist attacks throughout Syria, Hafez Assad ordered a massive military assault on the Muslim Brotherhood in the northern city of Hama. He saw the group as a threat to his control of Syria, and his forces, showing little mercy, killed at least five thousand people, many of them civilians, in a monthlong battle that left the city in ruins. In 1994, his oldest son and presumed heir, Basil, was killed in an automobile accident. Bashar, then twenty-eight, was studying ophthalmology in London, where his wife, Asmaa, worked in the executive-training program at J. P. Morgan. They returned to Damascus in 1994, and shortly after the death of his father, in June, 2000, Bashar took over the Presidency.
Unlike his father, Bashar is routinely depicted in Western newspapers not as ruthless but as unsure, inexperienced, and unable to control a corrupt Old Guard. Last month, I visited him at his office in Damascus. Tall, gangly, and seemingly shy and eager to please, Assad was waiting at the door for me. He offset his tentative and somewhat fussy manner with humor. He was frank about his reasons for speaking to me: he wanted to change his image, and the image of his country. “September 11th was like out of a Hollywood movie—beyond anyone’s imagination,” he said. “But it was not surprising as a concept. We actually experienced innocents being killed on our streets, and we know how it feels.” Syria had sent official expressions of sympathy, backed by offers to share intelligence. “We thought Al Qaeda was not different than the Muslim Brotherhood as a state of mind,” Assad said.
“For us,” Assad said, September 11th “was a good opportunity. The need to coöperate was very self-evident, and it was in our interest. It was also a way to improve relations.” Syria hoped to get off the list of state sponsors of terrorism; its case was based in part on the fact, acknowledged by the State Department, that it hadn’t been directly implicated in a terrorist act since 1986. On a practical level, removal from the list would make Syria eligible for trade and other economic aid—and arms sales—from which it is now barred.
In interviews and public statements, Assad has tried to draw a distinction between international terrorists and those he called part of the “resistance” in Israel and the occupied territories, including young Palestinian suicide bombers. It is a distinction that few in the Bush Administration would endorse. Syria’s enmity toward Israel has been unrelenting, as has its criticism of the United States for its support of Israel. In a typical comment, made in late March to Al Safir, a Lebanese newspaper, Assad declared, “No one among us trusts Israel; not the Syrians, not any other Arabs. . . . We must be very careful. Treachery and threats have always been Israeli characteristics. Through its existence, Israel always poses a threat.”
Assad and his advisers—many of whom are his father’s cronies—had hoped that their coöperation in the hunt for Al Qaeda would allow them to improve and redefine their relations with the United States. Among other things, the Syrians wanted a back channel to Washington—that is, a private means of communicating directly with the President and his key aides. But there was a major obstacle: Syria’s support for Hezbollah. “Hezbollah may be the A team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda is actually the B team,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a speech last September.
Last fall, however, General Hassan Khalil, the head of Syria’s military intelligence, told Washington that Syria was willing to discuss imposing some restrictions on the military and political activities of Hezbollah. The General requested that the C.I.A. be the means of back-channel communication. A senior Syrian foreign-ministry official I met argued that a back channel was crucial because while Assad might be able to take quick action against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a public stance against Hezbollah would be impossible. “He can’t do it,” the official said, adding that the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, is enormously popular in Syria.
The proposal went nowhere. A former State Department official told me that the C.I.A., ecstatic about the high level of coöperation with Syrian intelligence, “didn’t want to destroy the ‘happy talk’ about Al Qaeda by dealing with all the other troubling issues in the back channel.” The State Department, he added, did not like the Agency’s having access to U.S.-Syrian diplomatic correspondence. And the Pentagon, preoccupied with the Iraq war and ideologically hostile to Syria, vehemently opposed a back channel.
“The intelligence coöperation on Al Qaeda was important and effective,” said Martin Indyk, who served as Ambassador to Israel in the Clinton Administration and is now director of the Saban Center. “But the Syrians thought it would compensate for all their other games with Iraq and the Palestinian terror organizations, and it doesn’t.” On the issue of shutting down the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus, Indyk said, “They’re playing around.” He asked, “Why are they doing it despite our anger? One, they think we’re going to grow short of breath in Iraq and fail with the Middle East road map. So they’re biding their time. And, two, there doesn’t seem to be much consequence for not heeding our warnings.”
Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, who headed the Israeli delegation during the ill-fated peace talks with Hafez Assad in the mid-nineties, acknowledged that he was aware of the key Syrian intelligence role in the war against Al Qaeda, but he made it clear that Israel’s distrust of Syria remains acute. Rabinovich wondered aloud whether, given the quality of their sources, the Syrians had had advance information about the September 11th plot—and failed to warn the United States. He said that under the elder Assad the Syrians had been “masters of straddling the line.” He added, “Hafez negotiated with us, and he supported Hezbollah. The son is not as adept as the father, who could keep five balls in the air at the same time. Bashar can only handle three—if that. He has good intentions, but he’s not in control. He can’t deliver.” For that reason, Rabinovich believed, Israel has urged Washington not to open the back channel to Assad. For the Syrians, he added, “the best channel is a back channel—it’s ideal. They are then not embarrassed in public and they buy themselves some time.”
Many of those I spoke to said that there had been an apparent shift in Hezbollah’s behavior—one that may have created an opening which the Bush Administration has yet to exploit. “With the exception of exchange of fire over the Shebaa Farms”—a disputed area on the Lebanese border—“it’s been quiet since the Israeli evacuation in 2000,” said Richard W. Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as Ambassador to Syria in the nineteen-seventies. “The fact is Hezbollah knows its limits.” Murphy pointed to Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Lebanese government: Nasrallah’s group now has twelve seats in the parliament. Many in Pentagon circles and in Israel attribute Hezbollah’s silence to America’s swift defeat of the Iraqi regime. “The U.S. is now in the Middle East, and east of Israel,” a retired Israeli intelligence officer told me. As a result, another Israeli official said, “Hezbollah is playing defense today.”
Michel Samaha, Lebanon’s minister of information, told me that Hezbollah has stabilized daily life in southern Lebanon, by controlling and monitoring the sometimes violent activities of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in squalid refugee camps scattered through the area. He argued that America was making “a foolish mistake” by not trying to engage Hezbollah. The group, Samaha said, complied with Syria’s insistence that it prevent would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing the border into Israel. Rabinovich also said that Hezbollah had become more “careful” in its actions against Israel.
Martin Indyk questioned how much credit Syria should get for the change. “Nasrallah independently figured it was a good time to quiet things down, well before the war in Iraq,” he says. “I don’t think the Syrians were against it, but I wouldn’t rush to credit them for the cooling down. Hezbollah, like Hamas, has read the map much better than Bashar and has decided it makes sense to keep its head down, preserve its assets and resources, rebuild where it needs to, and wait for the next round.”
I spoke with Nasrallah, who is in his early forties, over tea at his offices south of Beirut. In his speeches to the faithful, his language is laced with hostility toward Israel and the United States, and with rationalizations for suicide bombings. In his conversation with me, he said, “I used to believe that the Americans would need a year or two before the Iraqis begin protesting, but here they are doing it in just two months, not two years.” Armed resistance, he said, was inevitable: “The history of Iraq says that it is possible to occupy Iraq, but one can’t stay there for long.” (On the eve of the war, he had said that American troops should expect “martyrdom operations” and that “Death to America was, is, and will stay our slogan.”)
Nasrallah emphasized that he was not seeking a confrontation with the United States. Because of Hezbollah’s ability to disrupt a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, I asked Nasrallah about his view of the renewed talks. He hesitated a moment and declared, “At the end, this is primarily a Palestinian matter. I, like any other person, may consider what is happening to be right or wrong. . . . I may have a different assessment, but at the end of the road no one can go to war on behalf of the Palestinians, even if that one is not in agreement with what the Palestinians agreed on. Of course, it would bother us that Jerusalem goes to Israel.”
I asked, “But if there was a deal?”
“Let it happen,” he answered. “I would not say O.K. I would say nothing.”
In midwinter, despite intense American pressure, Bashar Assad decided that Syria would not support the invasion of Iraq. Coöperation on Al Qaeda was now a secondary issue.
In our interview, Assad said that his opposition to the war was based on principle. “Could the Iraqi people ignore an American occupation because they hated Saddam? The United States doesn’t understand the society—not even the simplest analysis.” His decision was also driven by internal politics. America had demanded that Syria monitor and curtail the heavy flow into Iraq of smuggled arms and other military necessities from Syrian entrepreneurs—many with high-level Baath Party connections. “The U.S. had satellite photographs of the equipment and information on high-ranking Syrian officials,” a foreign diplomat with close ties to Washington said. “Bashar did not cut it off. The United States got furious.”
Even Assad’s most hopeful supporters told me that it was not clear how much control he had over his own government. Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born political scientist now at Washington’s Middle East Institute, told me, “Bashar is trying to reach out to the people, and the people like him, but what stands in the way is the financially corrupt state.”
Hafez Assad supported the first Gulf War, and Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East, said that Bashar Assad had “bet wrong” in refusing to support America this time. “He got nervous after the war and sent a series of messages saying he wants peace,” Ross said. He added, “Assad has to know that he won’t get by on the cheap—he truly must cut off support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad.” But, Ross went on, if he did so the U.S. should reward him “by renewing talks on the Golan Heights”—land Israel occupied in 1967. Ross said that, so far, there was no indication that the Administration was pursuing such an approach.
Instead, in late March Rumsfeld said that Syria would be held accountable for its actions. He accused Syria of supplying Iraq with night-vision goggles and other military goods. He also suggested that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might be stashed there. Syria denied the assertions, and members of the intelligence community I spoke to characterized the evidence against Syria as highly questionable.
The Syrians were rattled by the threats, in part because many in and close to the Bush Administration have been urging regime change in Damascus for years. In 2000, the Middle East Forum, a conservative Washington think tank, issued a study offering many of the same reasons for taking military action against Syria that were later invoked against Iraq. “The Defense Department pushed for the hard line on Syria,” a former State Department official told me. “I think Rummy was at least testing the waters—to see how far he could go—but the White House was not ready.” The former official added that Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, “is not going to sit on the Pentagon the way she’d have to in order to give the policy of engaging Syria politically a chance. She won’t until the President has made his preferences clear. This kind of policy drift on Syria would be sustainable for another Administration, but Bush can’t take it indefinitely. He’s defined the war on terrorism in theological terms. A President who says ‘You’re either with us or against us’ can’t let policy drift. Rumsfeld’s approach is to tell the President, ‘You do in Syria what you promised to do.’ ”
In Washington, there was anger about what many officials saw as the decision of the Bush Administration to choose confrontation with Syria over day-to-day help against Al Qaeda. In a sense, the issue was not so much Syria itself as a competition between ideology and practicality—and between the drive to go to war in Iraq and the need to fight terrorism—which has created a deep rift in the Bush Administration. The collapse of the liaison relationship has left many C.I.A. operatives especially frustrated. “The guys are unbelievably pissed that we’re blowing this away,” a former high-level intelligence official told me. “There was a great channel at Aleppo. The Syrians were a lot more willing to help us, but they”—Rumsfeld and his colleagues—“want to go in there next.”
“There is no security relationship now,” a Syrian foreign-ministry official told me. “It saddens us as much as it saddens you. We could give you information on organizations that we don’t think should exist. If we help you on Al Qaeda, we are helping ourselves.” He added, almost plaintively, that if Washington had agreed to discuss certain key issues in a back channel, “we’d have given you more. But when you publicly try to humiliate a country it’ll become stubborn.”
Robert Baer, a retired C.I.A. officer who served in Syria and is the author of a new book, “Sleeping with the Devil,” on Washington’s relationship with the Saudis, agreed that the Syrians had more to offer. “The Syrians know that the Saudis were involved in the financing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they for sure know the names,” Baer told me.
“Up through January of 2003, the coöperation was topnotch,” a former State Department official said. “Then we were going to do Iraq, and some people in the Administration got heavy- handed. They wanted Syria to get involved in operational stuff having nothing to do with Al Qaeda and everything to do with Iraq. It was something Washington wanted from the Syrians, and they didn’t want to do it.”
Differences over Iraq “destroyed the Syrian bet,” said Ghassan Salamé, a professor of international relations at Paris University who served, until April, as Lebanon’s minister of culture. “They bet that they could somehow find the common ground with America. They bet all on coöperation with America.” A Defense Department official who has been involved in Iraq policy told me that the Syrians, despite their differences with Washington, had kept Hezbollah quiet during the war in Iraq. This was, he said, “a signal to us, and we’re throwing it away. The Syrians are trying to communicate, and we’re not listening.”
This video below is dated June 2013, the US Training the militia fighting against the secular Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad