- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
The United States is being forced to rely on its regional partners to provide intelligence on the Islamic State in Iraq, and particularly Syria, according to a former CIA deputy director.
For U.S. spies, “the challenges are significant” in both countries, said Stephen Kappes, who retired in 2010 as the CIA’s second in command. “On the Iraqi side, I think there’s more opportunity for success,” he said. “It’s never good enough, but there is some collection that is solid.”
U.S. intelligence officials have long cautioned that they no longer have the ability to directly gather much ground-level information in Syria, given that most American personnel pulled out of the country several years ago. Kappes’s comments Monday made clear that U.S. intelligence is struggling to gain a foothold in the war against the Islamic State, even as President Barack Obama’s administration ramps up its military presence in the extremists’ self-declared caliphate.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Kappes said Iraq held two advantages over Syria for U.S. spies. He referred to “a significant number of what I call forward platforms from which you could launch” in Iraq. He would not be more specific than that, but a platform is anything from which intelligence collection can be performed, from an embassy to a satellite.
“It makes common sense, of course, that the closer you can get to the target, the easier it is to recruit; to actually collect intelligence,” Kappes said.
Additionally, he noted ongoing and yearslong relationships between Washington and Baghdad even though they “are not as easy or efficient as they were as recently as four, five, six, [or] seven years ago.”
But Syria is an even greater problem in terms of espionage, according to Kappes.
“In Syria, you have to spend just as much time trying to stay alive as you do having to try to figure out how to collect things,” he said. Success in Syria depends largely on clear and efficient assistance from Middle East allies “who have some significant capabilities of their own,” he said.
The only regional ally Kappes cited by name was Jordan. “The Jordanians have once again stepped up and put their people in harm’s way and, indeed, are on the ground and elsewhere to assist both publicly and clandestinely,” he said. “Some of the other services are doing the best they can, but in some cases, the best they can is really not very good or certainly not good enough.”
Kappes was deputy director when an al Qaeda double agent blew himself up at a CIA base near Khost, Afghanistan, killing nine people, including a Jordanian intelligence officer and seven CIA employees and contractors.
Reports Monday signaled that the Jordanian government is eyeing a potential security zone in southern Syria to give safe haven to refugees and rebel groups that are simultaneously fighting the Islamic State and seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey, too, has sought to build a buffer zone on its border and was considering sending thousands of troops into Syria to both protect against the Islamic State and prevent Kurdish groups that Ankara considers a separate threat from seizing more territory.
But State Department spokesman Mark Toner downplayed the reports, saying “there’s really no solid evidence of … which way either Turkey or Jordan is leaning at this point.”
“Certainly these are remarkable challenges, security challenges that everyone in the region is facing, and looking at how to address them the best way possible is something that these governments are considering,” Toner said.
The United States has repeatedly declined to impose a no-fly zone or buffer area in Syria as that would all but certainly require support from American personnel in the battlefield. The White House earlier this month announced it would send hundreds more U.S. troops to Iraq to help train local security forces to fight against the Islamic State. Obama won election in 2008 in part by promising to end the war in Iraq.
Photo credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images