WASHINGTON — Despite a dire need for intelligence about the groups fighting to overthrow the Syrian government, the CIA has little if any presence in the country, seriously limiting its ability to collect information and influence the course of events, according to current and former U.S. officials.
American intelligence agencies have kept tabs on Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, using spy satellites and other forms of electronic eavesdropping as well as information from allied nations and U.S. personnel in Turkey and other neighboring countries. The CIA also has some understanding of President Bashar Assad's government, officials said.
But more than 16 months into the Syrian uprising, the U.S. government still is struggling for details about who the main opposition groups are and what motivates them, say the current and former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing covert intelligence activities.
Although U.S. officials have had considerable contact with anti-Assad exile groups, most analysts expect a post-Assad government to be dominated by the armed groups operating in the country.
U.S. officials have worried that some of those groups may be linked to, or sympathetic with, Al Qaeda affiliates. By one U.S. estimate, as many as a quarter of the 300 rebel groups may be inspired by Al Qaeda, says Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
A major impediment to determining who is who is that CIA officers largely have avoided entering Syria or traveling to the battle zones since February, when the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was shuttered for security reasons after threats by groups allied with the Assad government. Closing the embassy left the agency without a secure base from which to operate, and CIA personnel left the country, the officials said.
Critics say the CIA's absence from Syria is a missed opportunity to influence the fractured rebel movement.
"We should be on the ground with bucket loads of money renting the opposition groups that we need to steer this in the direction that benefits the United States," said a former CIA officer who spent years in the Middle East. "We're not, and good officers are extremely frustrated."
The CIA declined to comment. When asked about statements that the CIA lacks a presence in Syria, U.S. officials notably do not dispute the idea, talking, instead, about other ways of finding out what is taking place.
"We know a lot more than we did about the Syrian opposition a month ago and much more than we knew six months ago. That's because of increased contacts diplomatically and through a variety of other means that I'm not going to discuss," an Obama administration official said.
Critics say the intelligence agencies have moved too slowly.
The U.S. has no choice but to get involved in Syria given the risks of Al Qaeda influence, said Rogers, who is regularly briefed on intelligence about Syria. Moreover, he said, a sudden collapse of the government could put its large stockpiles of chemical weapons up for grabs.
"We lost a lot of time on this; our intelligence agencies are playing catch-up," he said. "The administration was very slow to come together on a way forward."
The Obama administration official responded, "It's kind of hard to do a lot until you can get into a country. This issue is the subject of enormous amount of attention and concern."
Some current and former officials said the dearth of American intelligence agents in Syria stemmed from the administration's unwillingness to risk having a CIA officer captured or wounded with little hope of rescue. They also spoke of a hypersensitivity in Congress and among the public to the prospect of U.S. casualties, citing the criticism leveled at the CIA after seven officers were killed by a double agent-turned-suicide bomber in Khowst, Afghanistan, in December 2009.
A U.S. official regularly briefed on intelligence strongly disputed the notion that the CIA was averse to risk, calling it a "tired cliche." The official said, however, that he could not discuss in detail the reasons the CIA was not in Syria.
Until recently the CIA kept its distance from rebel groups, leaving face-to-face contacts largely to Turkish, Qatari, Saudi and other intelligence services, officials said. A few CIA officers in recent weeks have met with opposition leaders in Turkey near the Syrian border, officials said. They communicate by secure links with paid informers in Syria.
Several journalists have been spending time with rebel groups in Syria, living and traveling with them for days. But the CIA as a rule has been unwilling to let its officers do that, officials said. There would be no air support and limited rescue capability should the agents get into trouble.
"What are we going to do, just allow the Turks, the Qataris and the Saudis to have relations with opposition groups, and we not have direct relations?" asked Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. "That doesn't make any sense. Those countries don't always have our interests at heart."
By contrast with Libya, where the CIA did put in its own operatives, the rebels in Syria have no geographic base and have seized territory sporadically. Syria's military and police appear to be more sophisticated, or at least have a more centralized command, than were Libya's. Moreover, with no international military campaign to help the rebels, Syria is a far riskier climate for American spies than Libya was.
Regardless, "it's a manageable risk," the former CIA officer said.
"You have to be willing to send your people into harm's way, and the agency's value to the president is being the 911 service," the former officer said. "We should be going in and living with opposition fighters."
CIA operatives were the first Americans into Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. They helped coordinate a campaign by opposition fighters supported by U.S. bombers that led to the quick overthrow of the Taliban regime. Similarly, CIA officers went into northern Iraq's Kurdish region in July 2002 to help organize militia fighters before the U.S.-led invasion.
Two CIA officers involved in those efforts — Charles Faddis, who ran the CIA base in Iraq, and Gary Berntsen, his counterpart in Afghanistan — have since retired and written books criticizing the CIA as risk-averse.