CIA activities in Syria since the 1950s have included coup attempts and assassination plots, and in more recent years, extraordinary renditions, a paramilitary strike, and funding and military training of forces opposed to the current regime.
Attempted regime change, 1956–1957
The CIA made plans to overthrow the Syrian government because it would not cooperate with Western anticommunism. Early in 1956, the plan called for use of the Iraqi army; it then shifted its focus to agents with Syria itself.
Operation Straggle, 1956
National Security Council member Wilbur Crane Eveland, CIA official Archibald Roosevelt, and Michail Bey Ilyan, former Syrian minister, met in Damascus on 1 July 1956 to discuss a US-backed 'anticommunist' takeover of the country. They made a plan, scheduled for enactment on 25 October 1956, in which the military would
take control of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hamah. The frontier posts with Jordan, Iraq,and Lebanon would also be captured in order to seal Syria's borders until the radio stations announced that a new government had taken over under Colonel Kabbani, who would place armored units at key positions throughout Damascus. Once control had been established, Ilyan would inform the civilians he'd selected that they were to form a new government, but in order to avoid leaks none of them would be told until just a week before the coup.
The CIA backed this plan (known as "Operation Straggle") with 500,000 Syrian pounds (worth about $167,000) and the promise to support the new government. Although Secretary of State John Foster Dulles publicly opposed a coup, privately he had consulted with the CIA and recommended the plan to President Eisenhower.
The plan was postponed for five days, during which time Israel invaded Egypt. Ilyan told Eveland he could not succeed in overthrowing the Syrian government during a war of Israeli aggression. On 31 October, John Foster Dulles informed his brother Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA: "Re Straggle our people feel that conditions are such that it would be a mistake to try to pull it off". Eveland speculated that this coincidence had been engineered by the British in order to defuse US criticism of the invasion of Egypt.
Operation Wappen, 1957
DCI Allen Dulles continued to file reports about the dangerous of Communism in Syria. The CIA planned for another coup, code-named "Operation Wappen" and organized by Kermit Roosevelt. Syrian military officers were paid off in anticipation. Bribes reportedly totaled $3,000,000.
The coup failed when some of these officers revealed the plan to the Syrian intelligence service. They turned in the CIA bribe money and identified the officers who had tendered it. Robert Molloy, Francis Jeton, and Howard Stone were all deported. The US State Department denied Syrian accusations of a coup attempt, banned Syria's ambassador to the US, and withdrew its own ambassador from Syria. The New York Times backed the US government's claim and suggested that the story had been fabricated for political purposes.
After the coup attempt was exposed, the US government and media began describing Syria as a "Soviet satellite". One intelligence report suggested that the USSR had delivered "not more than 123 Migs" to the country. Reporter Kennett Love later said that "there were indeed 'not more than 123 Migs'. There were none." In September 1957, the US deployed a fleet to the Mediterranean, armed several of Syria's neighbors, and incited Turkey to deploy 50,000 troops to its border. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested that the US sought to invoke the "Eisenhower Doctrine" of retaliating against provocations, and this intention was later confirmed in a military report. No Arab state would describe Syria as a provocateur, and these military deployments were withdrawn.
Assassination plot, 1957
Explicit documents from September 1957 reveal a plot, including collaboration with the British intelligence service MI6 in a plot, to assassinate three Syrian officials in Damascus. These targets were: Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, head of military intelligence; Afif al-Bizri, army chief of staff; and Khalid Bakdash, leader of the Syrian Communist Party—all figures who had gained politically from exposure of "the American plot". Details about this conspiracy were revealed by a "Working Group Report" uncovered in 2003 among the papers of British Defence Minister Duncan Sandys:
Once a political decision is reached to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria, CIA is prepared, and SIS [MI6] will attempt, to mount minor sabotage and coup de main incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals.
The two services should consult, as appropriate, to avoid any overlapping or interference with each other's activities... Incidents should not be concentrated in Damascus; the operation should not be overdone; and to the extent possible care should be taken to avoid causing key leaders of the Syrian regime to take additional personal protection measures.
In the "Preferred Plan" drafted by the Working Group Report, the US and UK intelligence agencies would fund a "Free Syria Committee" and supply weapons to paramilitary groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria would be "made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments". These provocations would serve as the pretext for an outside invasion, led theoretically by the Kingdom of Iraq.
The Working Group Report stated that it would be "impossible to exaggerate the importance of the psychological warfare aspects of the present exercise", meaning that it would be necessary to convince people in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt that a state of emergency was at hand. Radio transmitters were deployed and the CIA prepared to send advisors to allied countries. The plan was developed quickly and re-used elements of the CIA's 1954 coup in Guatemala as well as its 1953 effort in Iran.
The "Preferred Plan" was aborted after renewed diplomatic engagement by Saudi Arabia and Iraq, followed by direct military support to Syria from Egypt, made a regional war seem unlikely. However, the Syria Working Group provided a model for other CIA interventions— most immediately, in Indonesia.
Response to treaty, 1983
In 1983, President Assad of Syria signed a peace and friendship treaty with the Soviet Union and some have suggested that the coincidental uprising by the Muslim brotherhood in Syria was a CIA operation to overthrow Assad for his pro-Soviet policies.
Extraordinary rendition, 2001–2003
The CIA used Syria as an illicit base of operations to torture ghost detainees, as part of a program known as extraordinary rendition. This program was established in the mid-1990s and expanded in the 2000s.
One target of this program, Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar, was detained in New York and sent to Syria, where he was interrogated and tortured. Arar, a telecommunications engineer who has been a Canadian citizen since 1991, was asked to confess his connections to al-Qaeda and to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Arar was held for more than a year; after his release, he sued the U.S. government. According to a U.S. Judge (and confirmed by Canadian investigators):
During his first twelve days in Syrian detention, Arar was interrogated for eighteen hours per day and was physically and psychologically tortured. He was beaten on his palms, hips, and lower back with a two-inch-thick electric cable. His captors also used their fists to beat him on his stomach, his face, and the back of his neck. He was subjected to excruciating pain and pleaded with his captors to stop, but they would not. He was placed in a room where he could hear the screams of other detainees being tortured and was told that he, too, would be placed in a spine-breaking "chair,” hung upside down in a "tire" for beatings, and subjected to electric shocks. To lessen his exposure to the torture, Arar falsely confessed, among other things, to having trained with terrorists in Afghanistan, even though he had never been to Afghanistan and had never been involved in terrorist activity.
Arar alleges that his interrogation in Syria was coordinated and planned by U.S. officials, who sent the Syrians a dossier containing specific questions. As evidence of this, Arar notes that the interrogations in the United States and Syria contained identical questions, including a specific question about his relationship with a particular individual wanted for terrorism. In return, the Syrian officials supplied U.S. officials with all information extracted from Arar; plaintiff cites a statement by one Syrian official who has publicly stated that the Syrian government shared information with the United States that it extracted from Arar. See Complaint Ex. E (January 21, 2004 transcript of CBS's Sixty Minutes II: “His Year In Hell”).
The U.S. initially invoked the “state secrets privilege”. When legal proceedings began anyway, the Ashcroft Justice Department was ridiculed for arguing that Arar was in fact a member of Al Qaeda. The Canadian government has apologized to Arar but the U.S. has not admitted wrongdoing.
Journalist Stephen Grey has identified eight other people tortured on behalf of the CIA at the same prison ("Palestine Branch") in Syria. The CIA imprisoned a German businessman, Mohammad Haydr Zammar, and transferred him from Morocco to the Syrian prison. They subsequently offered German intelligence officials the opportunity to submit questions for Zammar, and asked Germany to overlook Syria's human rights abuses because of cooperation in the War on Terror.
According to a 2013 report by the Open Society Foundation, Syria was one of the "most common destinations for rendered suspects" under the program. Former CIA agent Robert Baer described the policy to the New Statesman: "If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt".
Paramilitary raids, 2004–2008
On Sunday, 26 October 2008, the CIA conducted a paramilitary raid on the town of Sukkariyeh in eastern Syria. The raid involved "about two dozen U.S. commandos in specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters", according to reporters for the New York Times. The U.S. said it had killed an Iraqi who was supplying insurgents from across the Syrian border.
Syria accused the U.S. of committing "terrorist aggression" and said that eight civilians had been killed. The US responded that all people killed in the raid were "militants". The Syrian government closed an American cultural center and the US-sponsored Damascus Community School in response. The incident also led to a mass rally in Damascus in which protestors criticized the raid. (The Syrian government supported the rally but deployed riot police to protect the US buildings from angry protestors.)
Following the raid, the Times revealed the existence of a secret 2004 military order authorizing actions by the CIA and the Special Forces in 15–20 countries, including Syria. U.S. officials acknowledged that they had conducted other raids in Syria since 2004, but did not provide details.
Wikileaks has reported that the US government has been covertly funding the Syrian opposition. Special Activities Division teams are speculated to have been deployed to Syria during the uprising to ascertain rebel groups, leadership and potential supply routes.
In early September 2013, President Obama told U.S. Senators that the CIA had trained the first 50-man insurgent element and that they had been inserted into Syria. The deployment of this unit and the supplying of weapons may be the first tangible measure of support since the U.S. stated they would begin providing assistance to the opposition.
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), p. 85. "The short-sightedness of the neutralist government lay perhaps in its inability to perceive that its neutralism would lead to John Foster Dulles attempting to overthrow it. Syria was not behaving like Washington thought a Third World government should. For one thing, it was the only state in the area to refuse all US economic or military assistance. [...] Another difficulty posed by Syria was that, although its governments of recent years had been more or less conservative and had refrained from unpleasant leftist habits like nationalizing American-owned companies, US officials—suffering from what might be called anti-communist paranoia or being victims of their own propaganda—consistently saw the most ominous handwritings on the walls."
- Saunders, The United States and Arab Nationalism (1996), p. 50.
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), p. 86.
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), pp. 86–87.
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), p. 87.
- Saunders, The United States and Arab Nationalism (1996), p. 49.
- Saunders, The United States and Arab Nationalism (1996), p. 51.
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), p. 88. "But the coup was exposed before it ever got off the ground. Syrian army officers who had been assigned major roles in the operation walked into the office of Syria's head of intelligence, Colonel Sarraj, turned in their bribe money and named the CIA officers who had paid them. Liet. Col. Robert Molloy, the American army attaché, Francis Jeton, a career CIA officer, officially Vice Consul at the US Embassy, and the legendary Howard Stone, with the title Second Secretary for Political Affairs, were all declared personae non-gratae and expelled from the country in August. Col. Molloy was determined in leave Syria in style. As his car approached the Lebanese border, he ran his Syrian motorcycle escort off the road and shouted to the fallen rider that 'Colonel Sarraj and his commie friends' should be told that Molloy would 'beat the shit out of them with one hand tied behind is back if they ever crossed his path again.'"
- John Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA; Chicago: Ivan R. Dee (Rowman & Littlefield), 2006; p. .
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), pp. 88–89.
- Stephen Dorril, MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service; New York: Touchstone, 2000; p. 656.
- Blum, Killing Hope (1995), pp. 90–91.
- Ben Fenton, "Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot: Documents show White House and No 10 conspired over oil-fuelled invasion plan"; The Guardian, 26 September 2003.
- Jones, "The 'Preferred Plan'" (2004), p. 404.
- Jones, "The 'Preferred Plan'" (2004), p. 405–406.
- Jones, "The 'Preferred Plan'" (2004), p. 410.
- Jones, "The 'Preferred Plan'" (2004), pp. 411–412.
- Ostrovsky, Victor (1990). By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a MOSSAD officer. St. Martin's Press.
- Dreyfuss, Robert (2006). Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. Holt.
- Glenn Greenwald, "A court decision that reflects what type of country the U.S. is: Even when government officials purposely subject an innocent person to brutal torture, they enjoy full immunity." Salon, 3 November 2009.
- Jennifer Gould Keil, "Lawyer scolded for linking Arar to Al Qaeda: Former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft's defence lawyer called Canadian Maher Arar "clearly and unequivocally a member of Al Qaeda" yesterday – prompting guffaws from hundreds in a packed courtroom, including three incredulous judges"; Toronto Star, 10 November 2007.
- Vivienne Walt, "Inside the CIA's Secret Prisons Program"; Time, 13 October 2006.
- Ian Cobain, "CIA rendition: more than a quarter of countries 'offered covert support': Report finds at least 54 countries co-operated with global kidnap, detention and torture operation mounted after 9/11 attacks"; The Guardian, 5 February 2013.
- "Extraordinary rendition: a backstory: Used since the Reagan era, extraordinary rendition was stepped up after 9/11 to extract intelligence from suspected terrorists"; The Guardian, 31 August 2011.
- Eric Schmitt & Thom Shanker, "Officials Say U.S. Killed an Iraqi in Raid in Syria"; New York Times, 27 October 2008.
- Eric Schmitt & Graham Bowley, "Syria Orders American School Closed"; New York Times, 28 October 2008.
- "Syrian riot police encircle U.S. embassy as thousands protest raid: U.S. closes embassy in Damascus ahead of mass demonstration against raid near Iraqi border"; USA Today, 30 October 2008.
- Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, "Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda"; New York Times, 9 November 2008.
- Ewen MacAskill, "US forces staged more than a dozen foreign raids against al-Qaida: Former CIA official lifts lid on secret anti-terror operations"; The Guardian, 10 November 2008.
- Ariel Zirulnick (2011-04-18). "Cables reveal covert US support for Syria's opposition". CSMonitor.com. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Michael, Vicker. "The US Government Sent CIA / Blackwater Veteran To Fight With Rebels in Libya And Syria". Business Insider. Retrieved 24 March 2012.
- Raf Sanchez (2013-09-03). "First Syria rebels armed and trained by CIA 'on way to battlefield'". Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Adam Withnall (2013-09-03). "Syria crisis: First CIA-trained rebel unit about to join fighting against Assad regime, says President Obama - Middle East - World". The Independent. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995. ISBN 1-56751-052-3
- Jones, Matthew. "The 'Preferred Plan': The Anglo-American Working Group Report on Covert Action in Syria, 1957". Intelligence and National Security 19(3), Autumn 2004; pp. 401–415.
- Saunders, Bonnie. The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953–1960. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. ISBN 0-275-95426-9
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