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Politicizing Intelligence on Syria

12:00 AM, Mar 11, 2012 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The Obama administration is politicizing intelligence on Syria. What does “politicizing intelligence” mean? Using intel, or more often partial intel, to produce an effect in line with White House policies rather than giving a full picture of a particular situation.


The most recent proof is a story that the Associated Press carried on March 10, written by intelligence reporter Kimberly Dozier. Dozier reported straight what she was told—but therein lies the tale. Sometimes reporters get a scoop or a special insight by finding one or two members of the intel community who are willing to talk if guaranteed anonymity. In this case, Dozier was among several reporters briefed by three senior intelligence community officials. That kind of organized, orchestrated briefing requires clearance at the top.

What did the senior three intel officials tell reporters about the military situation in Syria? That “President Bashar Assad commands a formidable army,” “has assembled a highly professional, 330,000-man army plus reserves that was built and trained to invade Israel,” and has “formidable” air defenses.

Now, compare what a top military analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote about the same Syrian military in a monograph in 2007. Here are some of the nicer quotations:

"Manpower numbers have little meaning as a measure of military capability or merit. … Syria’s conventional forces are the impoverished stepchild of the region …[and have] become something of a military museum—a problem compounded by poorly organized technical and maintenance support and the failure to modify and update much of its equipment. … Syria, however, has compounded these problems with corruption, nepotism, and an occupation of Lebanon that further politicized and corrupted its forces. … Some Special Forces and armored units are exceptions, but promotion is highly dependent on favoritism and nepotism. … Syria, with the largest numbers, has one of the least capable air forces. Certainly, it is the worst air force per plane in service. … Syria’s [air defense] system is generally obsolete in weapons, sensors, and command and control capability. It also has a weak command and control system, as well as training and readiness problems. … Much of Syria’s conventional force posture is now obsolescent or obsolete, and its failure to properly modernize and ‘recapitalize”’ its forces has reached the crisis level. … Syria has effectively created hollow forces. … On paper, Syria had one low-grade reserve armored unit with about half the effective strength of its active divisions, plus 31 infantry, three artillery reserve regiments, four armored brigades. Most of these Syrian reserve units are poorly equipped and trained..."

To be fair, those words are five years old, and Syria has modernized its air defense systems in the interim—to some degree at least. Certainly whatever air defenses they had in 2007 were no great problem for Israel when it destroyed Syria’s North Korean-built nuclear reactor. But Cordesman’s analysis is a reminder about spin: When the three senior intel officers mentioned the reserves, did they tell reporters what awful shape they are in? Did they discuss how much of the Syrian Army is a poorly trained force of Sunni conscripts on which the regime cannot rely? How could they possibly have described this Syrian army as a “highly professional force of 330,000”? 

The goal of the briefing seems clear: to justify doing nothing. If Syria’s forces are huge and “highly professional,” the chances that our support for the opposition will be fruitful are small. It’s basically hopeless, you see. But Cordesman’s descriptions tend to contradict that conclusion, and to suggest that a decently organized and armed opposition might make headway against the Syrian military, especially when the ethnic factor is added. The opposition is primarily Sunni, and Sunnis make up about 75 percent of Syria’s population.

In testimony last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other Obama administration officials continued to give a very gloomy view of the opposition in Syria. “It is not clear what constitutes the Syrian armed opposition—there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed or contacted,” Panetta said

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