Syria experts cautioned that the opposition to Assad remains a chaotic mix of secular and Islamist elements, highlighting the risk that some American-provided munitions may be diverted from their intended recipients.
But U.S. officials involved in the planning of the new policy of increased military support announced by the Obama administration Thursday said that the CIA has developed a clearer understanding of the composition of rebel forces, which have begun to coalesce in recent months. Within the past year, the CIA also created a new office at its headquarters in Langley to oversee its expanding operational role in Syria.
“We have relationships today in Syria that we didn’t have six months ago,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said during a White House briefing Friday. The United States is capable of delivering material “not only into the country,” Rhodes said, but “into the right hands.”
The confidence conveyed by Rhodes’s statement is in contrast to the concerns expressed by U.S. intelligence officials last year that the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies were still struggling to gain a firm understanding of opposition elements — a factor cited at the time as a reason the Obama administration was unwilling to consider providing arms.
“The Syrian puzzle has come into sharper focus in the past year, especially the makeup of various anti-regime groups,” said a U.S. official familiar with CIA assessments of the conflict. “And while the opposition remains far from monolithic, its military structures and coordination processes have improved.”
The official, like most others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments and planning.
The increased certainty is one of several factors that led to the reversal of a U.S. policy against providing lethal aid that had been in place since the uprising began in Syria more than two years ago.
Rhodes said the change was driven by a new determination by U.S. intelligence agencies that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, including sarin gas, on at least four separate occasions. Obama also faced mounting pressure to intervene more aggressively as members of Congress and overseas allies became increasingly alarmed that Assad’s forces were gaining strength with expanded assistance from Russia and Iran.
For the CIA, the shift on Syria marks a return to a covert-action role that was familiar to the agency during Cold War-era conflicts but that gave way to increasingly direct lethal operations as the agency’s drone campaign surged in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.