U.N. Plan Calls for Intel Team in Damascus

The U.N.’s envoy to Syria wants to set up an independent information-gathering unit to monitor a cease-fire says a confidential document.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - FEBRUARY 01: UN's special envoy to Syria Staffan Domingo de Mistura speaks to media after he met with Syrian main oppositions' High Negotiations Committee (HNC) delegates during ongoing Syrian peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland on February 01, 2016.

 (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - FEBRUARY 01: UN's special envoy to Syria Staffan Domingo de Mistura speaks to media after he met with Syrian main oppositions' High Negotiations Committee (HNC) delegates during ongoing Syrian peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland on February 01, 2016. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is discretely making the case for establishing an intelligence-gathering cell to help implement any cease-fire agreements that may emerge from the Syrian peace process, according to a confidential paper obtained by Foreign Policy.

The collection of intelligence is politically sensitive at the United Nations, where U.N. governments hosting U.N. missions have harbored suspicions that it would be used to spy on them. But the idea is particularly delicate in Syria, where the government of strongman Bashar al-Assad has previously blocked international monitors from entering the country with even the most basic communications equipment.

The paper, titled “Draft Ceasefire Modalities Concept Paper,” never explicitly mentions the need for an intelligence unit, but instead employs a series of euphemisms — like “situational awareness,” “data harvesting” and “information collection” — invoking the need to gather sensitive intelligence on counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State and the military conduct of government and opposition forces.

Any new U.N. intelligence arm would need access to satellite imagery, which can be purchased on the open market or obtained from foreign intelligence agencies, as well as some form of sensors to conduct remote monitoring of cease-fires and to gain insights into the international effort to destroy the Islamic State. The new proposal also calls for the recruitment of “information, political and security analysts” to assess information from a number of sources, including foreign governments and social media. It would also require counterterrorism and explosives experts.

It’s far from certain that de Mistura’s plan will see the light of day as the Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, has continued to prosecute an offensive against the Syrian opposition even as the parties gather in Geneva for peace talks. It’s also not clear how effective it would be, since the plan would sharply limit the freedom of U.N. or other international monitors from venturing outside Damascus because of safety concerns. De Mistura’s office declined to comment on the document, but an official familiar with it said that it was an early draft that has since been revised. It remains unclear whether details about the intelligence-gathering unit have been changed.

Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.N. is kidding itself if it thinks it can develop a credible intelligence-gathering operation in Syria with a small presence of U.N. officials parked primarily in the Syrian capital. “Most of the plans for a light U.N. presence are different shades of nonsense,” Gowan said. “Pretending you are going to have the intelligence capacity to make up for the lack of a real presence on the ground is hocus-pocus.”

Gowan said the U.N. will have to rely on whatever scraps of intelligence the United States, Russia, and other key powers are willing to share. “This is a conflict where a lot of really serious intelligence services are already heavily engaged,” he said. “The idea that some U.N. intelligence team just swans in and is really going to understand what is going on is bonkers.”

The U.N. itself has already made it clear that it lacks the capacity to enforce a ceasefire in Syria on its own, saying the job will need fall to the combatants and their foreign backers. De Mistura urged the International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, a 17-nation grouping that includes the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to start negotiations on a cease-fire at a high-level meeting in Munich on Feb. 11. “That would be the strongest message of all to the Syrian people,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva this week.

There was a surreal quality to the internal deliberations over the technical aspects of a cease-fire, which are taking place against a backdrop of intense violence in Syria that shows little sign of abating. A spokesman for the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, Fara Atassi, charged Russia on Tuesday of a “massive acceleration” of its bombardment of civilian targets in Aleppo and Homs. The HNC subsequently cancelled a scheduled meeting Tuesday afternoon with de Mistura and threatened to walk out. The Islamic State, meanwhile, carried out a suicide bombing attack Sunday that killed as many 70, including dozens of pro-Syrian militia fighters near one of Syria’s holiest Shiite shrines.

Still, in the event that an agreement is reached, de Mistura’s mediation office could expand into a special political mission in Syria that would provide training and equipment to local cease-fire monitors, according to the confidential paper. The office’s main purpose would be to help the Syrian government and opposition fighters broker and implement local cease-fires and support humanitarian relief efforts. It could also act as a central clearinghouse for credible information on events unfolding throughout Syria, and provide reports to the U.N. Security Council and other key players on developments on the ground there. Any plan to deploy international personnel in Syria would be “entirely dependent upon security conditions being suitable and sustainable,” according to de Mistura’s paper.

The mission’s activities would largely be restricted to Damascus, where Assad’s regime has been able to assure a degree of security that doesn’t exist throughout much of the country. The paper recommends considering the “appointment of a senior leader, potentially with military experience, to focus on the management and coordination of ceasefire activities within Syria.”

A small number of staff members would venture beyond the capital “to conduct limited but critical tasks,” such as developing contacts with the combatants and helping the fighters negotiate any cease-fire arrangements. They would be permitted to travel only to towns “where the appropriate security measures [are] in place” and they would not be expected to carry out “physical monitoring, verification and observation tasks,” according to the paper. That job would be left to the combatants themselves.

The deployment of U.N. personnel in Syria’s conflict zones “would require a tolerance for residual physical risk,” de Mistura’s team cautioned, as well as “credible” security guarantees from the combatants and the foreign governments that provide military or financial support to the warring parties. “Enhancement of situation awareness and for information sharing will also be required to enable a clear picture of local security conditions, progress in implementation of ceasefire activities, and, where possible to contribute to confidence building and dispute resolution,” the paper added.

Any peace deal to emerge from the Geneva talks would be complicated by the fact that the key powers will continue to prosecute a war against the Islamic State, or ISIL, and al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al Qaeda. It would require “political and operational mitigation measures to address the threat of asymmetric attacks,” according to the paper. De Mistura’s team, meanwhile, “would need to liaise with the ISSG [International Syria Support Group] and other partners involved in the counter ISIL activities to ensure deconfliction from ceasefire related initiatives.” Such activities would be restricted to making the anti-terror coalition aware of the activities and locations of cease-fire initiatives.

Intelligence used to be considered a dirty word among U.N. member states, who opposed repeated U.N. efforts to acquire a more sophisticated capacity for collecting information to help run its far-flung operations because of fears that it would be used to collect intelligence on governments hosting a U.N. mission. Such fears are hardly irrational. During the 1990s, intelligence agencies from the United States, Russia, and other foreign governments infiltrated the U.N. Special Commission, which was responsible for monitoring and destroying Saddam Hussein’s chemical, biological, and nuclear programs.

But that’s rapidly beginning to change. In Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.N. commanders have engaged in old-fashioned spycraft, assembling networks to collect details on the activities of gang members in Port-au-Prince or militias in eastern Congo. More recently, the U.N. has begun to introduce unarmed drones in its missions in Congo, Central African Republic, and Mali. In a rare departure, the Dutch developed an intelligence-gathering unit in Mali.

“Five years ago even saying publicly that there would be need for an intelligence capacity was taboo around the secretariat,” Gowan said. But “because the U.N. is doing more serious intelligence gathering in places like Mali it is now something which U.N. officials are more honest about.”

In Syria, the issue remains highly sensitive.

In December 2011, Arab League monitors were authorized by Syria to monitor the withdrawal of armed forces from cities. But the monitors were subject to a major disinformation campaign by government-backed media, denied the right to deploy their own medical evacuation teams, and had their communications equipment confiscated at the Jordanian border, leaving them with just 10 satellite phones and forcing them to rely on unsecured Syrian fax and phone lines. The Chinese embassy had to loan them 10 walkie-talkies to allow monitors in the field to communicate with headquarters.

For instance, early on in the mission, thousands of pro-government supporters surrounded the mission’s convoy in the town of Latakya, “chanting slogans in support of the president and against the mission,” according to a report by the Arab mission, which was forced to halt its operation after seven weeks on the ground. “The crowds went out of control, and the observers were attacked. Two observers sustained minor injuries. Their armored vehicle was totally destroyed.”

The Security Council established the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) in April 2012, but it had to end its operations just four months later because it was too dangerous.

Despite the limitations of U.N. intelligence gathering, the U.N. can learn a lot about what’s happening in the conflict zone by tracking social media, like YouTube and Twitter, according to Walter Dorn, an expert on U.N. intelligence gathering, at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Dorn favors a “layered approach” to collecting intelligence for cease-fire monitoring in Syria: tracking social media, paying local monitors to provide on-site reporting to verify ceasefire violations, and using advanced technology — including overhead surveillance and remotely deployed cameras — to monitor cease-fire violations. That, he said, could be reinforced by routine visits to cease-fire sites by the U.N. or other international monitors.

But he said the U.N. would have to take serious precautions to ensure that the intelligence it collects doesn’t endanger the lives of Syrians who are cooperating with the United Nations. “If you are benefiting from reporting by locals they could be subject to attack and intimidation,” Dorn said.

Photo credit: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch