The U.S. has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to front-line allies.
A centerpiece of the effort this year focused on getting Iraq to close its airspace to Iran-to-Syria flights that U.S. intelligence concluded were carrying arms for Assad loyalists—contrary to flight manifests saying they held cut flowers. The U.S. has also tried to keep ships believed to carry arms and fuel for Syria from traversing the Suez Canal, with mixed results.
The behind-the-scenes efforts by the Central Intelligence Agency, the State and Treasury departments and the military point to a broader American role in the campaign against Mr. Assad than previously acknowledged. The efforts have ramped up recently as relations with some in the Syrian opposition have warmed and as Mr. Assad has grown more desperate for supplies.
Skeptics within the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill, however, say U.S. pressure is hit-or-miss and comes too late to ensure U.S. influence over any post-Assad future. Many Syrian opposition leaders complain the U.S. hasn’t done enough and say the efforts of regional allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in some cases to ship arms, are more significant.
U.S. officials acknowledge the limitations that come from the Obama administration’s unwillingness to get entangled in the conflict. While some weapons flights to Syria have been stopped, officials say intelligence is hard to obtain and overseas governments can be balky about cooperation. Some shipments of arms and fuel for Syria have slipped through.
Syrian opposition leaders acknowledge stepped-up contacts in recent months with State Department and CIA officials, mostly in southern Turkey. But rebel leaders say the U.S. could have pressed for a more concerted campaign to close down air and sea routes that resupply Mr. Assad’s forces, including the Suez Canal, earlier on.
“The Americans say to us that they have allowed the regional players to help us, but if they think this is an achievement…then they should know this is weak and inadequate support,” said Louay Mokdad, a logistics coordinator for the rebel Free Syrian Army. He and two rebel commanders offered examples of requests they said weren’t met, including for satellite images and an operations room.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said the administration recently decided to ramp up efforts to counter the Syrian regime.
“There is a renewed effort to crack down in any way possible,” another senior U.S. official said, pointing to stepped-up efforts to block certain shipments through the Suez Canal, which is controlled by Egypt.
That U.S. effort, described by officials familiar with it, is among the few concrete measures the administration is taking to bring to an end one of the last and bloodiest battles of the Arab Spring. It is symbolic of a broader shift in the U.S. approach to hot spots, away from expensive ground campaigns and toward covert and diplomatic operations.
Some administration and military officials believe they are putting pressure on Mr. Assad. Others expressed doubt about the strategy’s effectiveness, with one skeptic likening it to trying to dam a stream by standing in the middle of it.
House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) said the effort “stops far too short of really having an impact” because there are so many ways to get arms into Syria, including smuggling routes through Lebanon.
“We’re just nowhere near where we need to be,” Mr. Rogers said.
A spokesman for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on specific efforts. “It’s clear that the Assad regime is losing control of Syria,” said the spokesman, Tommy Vietor, pointing to a bombing in Damascus last week that killed top Assad advisers.
Officials said the U.S. has been providing intelligence about developments in Syria to the Turkish and Jordanian militaries working closely with the rebels.
Imagery from military-controlled satellites and other surveillance equipment includes details about Syrian military sites that could help rebels in targeting as well as in tracking the regime’s chemical weapons, officials said.
They also said the CIA has provided limited intelligence to some opposition groups and used its informants to work with opposition elements. The CIA declined to comment.
One example of the U.S. approach—and of its limitations—came earlier this year when the U.S. sought to pressure Iraq to curtail flights between Iran and Syria across Iraqi airspace. That supply route opened wide after the U.S. completed its troop withdrawal from Iraq in December, U.S. administration and military officials say.
The next month, the CIA picked up detailed intelligence that Iran was using an Iranian private cargo airline, Yas Air, to fly arms over Iraq to Syria, according to U.S. officials.
With U.S. warplanes no longer patrolling Iraqi skies, the U.S. had few options except to cajole the Iraqis to act. In an official complaint to Baghdad called a démarche, the U.S. demanded an end to the flights, said officials briefed on the discussions. “You’ve got to stop this,” the Americans told Iraqi leaders, according to one senior U.S. official.
The démarche appeared to persuade the Iraqis to act, according to American officials; the flights stopped.
But in late January and early February, the CIA began to track flights of Syrian government AN-76 cargo planes between Syria and Iran, a new tactic.
According to U.S. officials, Syria and Iran sought to disguise the cargo of flights leaving Iran, in some cases with manifests citing flowers and farm equipment. CIA analysts concluded the manifests were false and pointed to the involvement of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in the flights, said people briefed on the intelligence.
Iran denies providing arms to Syria. A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman called the notion of arms shipments from Iran “baseless.”
In a series of démarches in February and March, U.S. diplomats warned Iraq its failure to act against the flights ran counter to Iraq’s obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Iraqi leaders were initially dismissive of U.S. intelligence but said they would investigate.
Iraq sent its minister of transportation, Hadi Ameri, to Tehran to discuss the flights, according to U.S. officials. The Iranians said the flights weren’t carrying arms, a message the Iraqis relayed to skeptical U.S. officials. Mr. Ameri couldn’t be reached for comment.
While U.S. and Iraqi officials went back and forth on the issue, several Syrian cargo planes made the trip to Iran and back without interference.
As Iraq prepared to play host to an Arab League meeting at the end of March, which would showcase its emergence from American occupation, U.S. officials raised the possibility Iraq would face disclosures about the flights—an embarrassment because most Arab nations had turned against Mr. Assad.
The warning appeared to get through. Iraqi leaders told the U.S. they might search the suspect flights. Two weeks before the Arab League summit, the flights of the Syrian AN-76 cargo planes abruptly stopped, U.S. officials say.
A spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraqi authorities routinely stop cargo planes that fly over Iraq to Syria or leave directly from Iraq to Syria to make sure they aren’t carrying arms.
U.S. officials said the effort to block resupply flights continues and includes a renewed focus on Suez Canal traffic.
One ship currently seeking permission to enter the canal is owned by a subsidiary of Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, according to U.S. officials.
The ship, the Amin, has already passed through the canal once, to the chagrin of the U.S. It traveled last month to the Syrian port of Banias, where it is believed to have unloaded gasoline for the Syrian regime and then picked up Syrian crude oil to take to Iran. Now the ship is seeking approval to pass back through the Suez Canal.
U.S. officials tracking the shipment said a subsidiary of Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines has repeatedly changed the Amin’s shipping flags to continue operating despite U.S. and European Union sanctions.
U.S. officials are in negotiations with the Egyptian government in an effort to block the Amin’s return, arguing that it isn’t properly flagged and that it doesn’t have internationally recognized insurance.