As fighting in Syria entered its third year, a new report contended Friday that the CIA had stepped up its secret contingency plans in the war-torn country and collected intelligence on Islamic extremists for possible lethal drone strikes for the first time.
The Los Angeles Times, quoting current and former US officials, reported that the Counterterrorism Center, which runs the CIA’s covert drone program in Pakistan and Yemen, recently relocated several targeting officers to improve intelligence collection on militants in Syria, some of whom are closely affiliated to al-Qaeda, who might pose a terror threat to the US and its allies. The targeting officers formed a unit with their colleagues who were tracking al-Qaeda operatives and other fighters in Iraq, some of whom have joined other Islamic extremists in Syria in their fight against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The intelligence gathering could also help the US zero in on more moderate opposition figures in the event that things spin out of control in Syria, which has increasingly become a haven-like location for Islamic militias, the report added.
The news about the CIA’s covert operations in Syria comes as calls for supplying lethal weapons to the Syrian rebels have become more vocal. The top US Democrat in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Eliot Engel, is set to introduce legislation to train, arm, and support the Syrian opposition Monday — which would constitute a major escalation in US involvement in the civil war.
The brutal two-year conflict has taken the lives of approximately 70,000 Syrians and displaced over 1 million refugees, according to UN estimates.
A different report this week claimed that the US had trained between 200 and 300 Syrian rebels at a camp in Jordan. The US declined to comment on the ostensible training.
The US had previously refused to provide the rebels with arms. It recently approved an aid package that would supply opposition fighters with nonlethal aid, such as medical equipment. US Secretary of State John Kerry announced at a conference in Rome last month a $60 million package of nonlethal assistance, the first direct help to the opposition forces trying to overthrow Assad.
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