The struggle to make sense of the money transfers underscores the degree to which many aspects of the uprising in Syria remain opaque to outside observers — including U.S. spy agencies — a year after internal efforts to oust Assad began.
Intelligence on Assad’s regime and its intentions has been fragmentary or out of focus, senior U.S. officials said. The composition and capabilities of Syrian opposition forces remain unclear. And U.S. analysts have been unable to reach firm conclusions on key questions, including whether al-Qaeda was responsible for a series of bombings in Syria in recent months.
Reliable intelligence on Syria “comes and goes,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee. “It’s a mixed bag in Syria and probably rates on the low-acuity side.”
That has complicated policy issues for the Obama administration as it decides whether to arm or otherwise support Assad’s opponents.
Top U.S. defense officials said Wednesday that President Obama has authorized, and the Pentagon has completed, initial U.S. planning for possible intervention in Syria but that a lack of unity within the Syrian opposition and the international community argues against such a mission.
“There are no simple answers,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at a contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria. “The result is a great deal of anger and frustration that we all share.”
In addition to tracking money transfers, U.S. spy agencies have scoured satellite imagery and signals intercepts to compensate for a shortage of “human intelligence” from inside a country long considered a key crossroads in espionage.
For the CIA, already stretched by the demands of two war zones and the domino-like toppling of Arab governments, Syria poses greater difficulties than other countries swept up in the Arab Spring.
In Libya, for example, the CIA was able to insert covert collection teams within weeks of the start of the conflict to make contact with rebel groups and gather intelligence firsthand.
In Syria, where outgunned opposition elements have struggled to claim and hold territory, the CIA has been forced to rely on a network of sources concentrated in Damascus and assistance from the intelligence services of Arab allies.
Asked which partners are providing the most help, a former high-ranking CIA official said, “anybody who’s Sunni” and, therefore, likely to oppose the Shiite Assad regime. The former official pointed to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan in particular.
The challenge for the CIA increased when the United States shut its embassy in Damascus last month. The facility had provided diplomatic cover for agency officers and a base for intelligence-gathering operations inside Syria’s capital.