Special operations forces from the U.S. and its allies have been on the ground in Syria since at least December, according to confidential emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor that were released by WikiLeaks.
An analyst from Stratfor claimed in December 2011 that officials at the Pentagon clued him in on covert military operations taking place in Syria. “After a couple hours of talking, they said without saying that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces,” the email said.
“One Air Force intel guy (US) said very carefully that there isn’t much of a Free Syrian Army to train right now anyway, but all the operations being done now are being done out of ‘prudence,'” it continued. “They have been told to prepare contingencies and be ready to act within 2-3 months, but they still stress that this is all being done as contingency planning, not as a move toward escalation.”
Publicly, the Obama administration has retreated from its initial refusal to stay out of the conflict in Syria by agreeing this week to provide direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition. While the official line remains to keep military options off the table for now, the change in policy could open the flood gates for expanded military intervention.
Complicating the official story, a report coming out of Lebanon this week claimed 13 French soldiers were captured in the Syrian city of Homs. The French Foreign Ministry denied the claims, saying there are no ground troops in Syria.
According to the Stratfor analyst, after rejecting the prospect of “an eventual air campaign,” the officials at the Pentagon told him “the idea ‘hypothetically’ is to commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within.”
The extent to which the information exchanged in the conversation was “hypothetical” is not clear and no U.S. official has made any comment on the information in the leaked email. The discussion appeared focused on contingency planning and the phrase “they said without saying” is never elaborated on. The date of the email coincides roughly with the first public reports of secret contingency planing in December.
Information in a report on Stratfor’s website published March 7, 2012, appears to have been taken at least partially from this very email. It reads: “The U.S. military indeed has updated its order of battle for Syria in preparation for any contingency operations, and this work allegedly produced the best order of battle the United States has had on Syria since 2001. However, contingency plans exist for numerous countries with which war is unlikely.”
In congressional sessions with top military officials on Wednesday, some in Congress expressed frustration with current policy, as articulated by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others. “I get irritated, I get angry,” McCain insisted, accusing the U.S. military of “standing on the sidelines” instead of waging an all out war on Syria, as he proposed on Monday.