Just How Blind Are We in Syria?

American intelligence has become too dependent on data analytics and supercomputers, which are as good as useless in Aleppo

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Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa

Syrian life along the abandoned street of Salahadeen, one of Aleppo's front lines, on March 21, 2013

If there was still any doubt about how confusing the civil war is in Syria, it should be put to rest by the bafflement over last week’s alleged gas attack near Aleppo. It supposedly occurred on March 19, but that’s the only fact we know. No one can tell us whether the regime or the rebels were behind it. Or even if a real chemical weapon was involved.

The chemical-weapons experts I talked to doubted very much that any sort of weaponized nerve agent was exploded. The Syrian military is known to possess both VX and Sarin. But if indeed either one had been used, there would have been horrific casualties, thousands killed. On the other hand, those same experts wouldn’t exclude that some sort of riot-control gas had been used. But who could tell without any sort of real evidence coming out of Syria?

(MORE: Will France Lead the U.S. Into Syria?)

I asked a Syrian rebel what he made of the alleged attack. He said, “We don’t know how to use that stuff.” But he quickly added that there are a lot of rebel groups he couldn’t account for. He said that even Jabhat al-Nusra, a Salafi group that’s now on America’s terrorism list, has lost control of several groups who are nominally fighting in its name.

The obvious cause of our blindness on Syria is that there’s very little reliable reporting coming out of the country. Qatar’s official TV al-Jazeera is on the front lines, but Qatar hasn’t even bothered to hide the fact that it’s taken sides in the Syrian civil war — it won’t even pretend it’s objective. Western news coverage is sporadic and uneven and can’t begin to adequately report on something like a gas attack.

As for American intelligence, it has no one on the ground in Syria, and certainly no one near a hot battle zone like Aleppo. It’s too dangerous and not worth the candle. We’re left then with the not-very-attractive alternative of waiting for Syrian refugees to make their way either north to Turkey or south to Jordan. Their information can’t be anything other than spotty and inaccurate and hard to corroborate. Traumatized people will say anything to get back at their tormentors. As for the Free Syrian Army, it would say anything to persuade the West to intervene and get rid of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Keep in mind that it wouldn’t take much to rule out the possibility that a nerve agent was used on March 19. One way to do it would be to analyze a sampling of automobile air filters driving in the vicinity at the time of the alleged attack. As crude as it sounds, it’s a method that would offer conclusive proof one way or another. But apparently even this is proving difficult.

We also have to consider the fact that for the past 12 years, American intelligence has taken its eye off the Syrian ball. The bulk of its people and resources have been bled off to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We may now have legions of operatives and analysts who can tell us more about these countries than we could ever want to know, but nothing about Syria.

(MORE: Can Obama Make Israelis Believe Again?)

According to a March 20 Washington Post story, a panel of White House advisers issued a secret report that U.S. spy agencies’ collection has been “distorted” by devoting too much money and people to military operations and drones: i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, the unwritten subscript is that in the hunt for mainstream al-Qaeda, we missed the witches’ brew in Syria. (I say this with the caveat that it wasn’t management’s fault; it’s inevitable when you fight two large and messy wars.)

Finally, one complaint I keep hearing about from intelligence officers is that Washington has let itself become too dependent on data analytics — supercomputers, monitoring social media, algorithms. It may work fine for targeting drones in war, but for an opaque country like Syria, where Internet usage is rare and the cell phones are now out, it’s as good as useless.

If Syria and the rest of the Middle East continue to deteriorate as they are, it’s time for a change in American intelligence. Rather than parking thousands of intelligence officers in front of flat panel screens watching drone feeds, it’s time we go back to old-fashioned intelligence collection: go recruit a source to bring us a dozen car air filters from Aleppo. It could mean the difference between war and peace.

38 comments
RaymondCrippen
RaymondCrippen

OK, we found the Weapons of Mass Destruction. This needs to be reported on the front page of the New York Times and then we must send in our troops.

AmericanMuse
AmericanMuse

The U.S. media is attempting to thoroughly brainwashed its audience; this Syria story is an example.

domusauri
domusauri

Yeah...I believe that there are a number of people who distinctly remember how a well-known representative of the American government shook a mysterious phial filled with none the less mysterious powder at the UN Security Council Session right before the Iraq invasion. Maybe this time a couple of sinister bags with gray powder will do the job? But let's not forget that the original phial turned out to be nothing but a fake that killed so many innocent American soldiers and people of Iraq. I hope that nothing like this will ever happen in Syria.

DanielSolis
DanielSolis

Very bad article. I am virtually shocked by the poor quality of it! There has been enough forensic analysis of the gas attack. to begin with. The internet works perfectly in most urban areas and the cellular phone grid as well. Either the authors are willfully misguiding the reader or they are totally ignorant. I am getting hundreds of messages from Syria daily and phone calls as well. So do your math. If you only talk to the terrorists who most probably don't pay their bills, no wonder they are off the grid! It would help you to contact the ministry of information in Damascus and ask for accreditation and visit the country before sending in CIA operatives crowding at their operation bases in Aman and Incirlik, to say the least. What a shameful display of a lousy journalism!

joshisushma
joshisushma

%s %s With CIA arming rebels and China\/Russia sending weapons to Assad,%sa is a proxy war amongst%sg%ss. Analyze that.

fofybehojip
fofybehojip

%s Check out the tattoo they just got! You won't believe it! %s %sbsm

In_Sight_Full
In_Sight_Full

@In_Sight_Full Maybe somebody should start the 'WMD Sampling Bigade'! They would sample, catalog & transport the car air filters to safety.

In_Sight_Full
In_Sight_Full

@In_Sight_Full Use your imagination to devise how to deploy this scientific instrument. 'They' want hard evidence? Now you can go get it!

In_Sight_Full
In_Sight_Full

@In_Sight_Full If an abandoned car is found running after an incident, remove and bag the car's air filter and tag with location and time.

In_Sight_Full
In_Sight_Full

@In_Sight_Full The car filters can be used to collect evidence. The car must be running during the incedent to 'collect a sample' in filter!

EyadR
EyadR

Robert, I don't like to mock and joke but I am currently living and working in Syria and the following sentence has made me get what a LOL really means "...where Internet usage is rare and the cell phones are now out...". I have to tell you that internet usage and cell phones are what we are currently depending on the most in our daily lives to overcome the difficulties we are facing because of such an analysis which as blind as it is, it throws the dust in the eyes...

In addition, I have to say that the article's photo is an absurdly obvious poor Photoshop image which attempts to add drama to an already dramatic situation on the ground...

Finally, to answer your objective question: Actually, you are too much blind in Syria and all what you has to do is to remove the blindfold you are wearing, the arrogance your soul is full of and stop being part of this deadly game!

Ranafachi
Ranafachi

@TIME @TIMEWorld we knw cia is funding rebels & the American govt is deceiving Saudi Arab to take anti Shia stance & turkey is dogy of nato

JanFearing
JanFearing

Again, I ask, WHAT IS THE RED LINE FOR REBELS AND WHY DOES OUR GOVERNMENT NEVER MENTION ONE???? Assad was too popular and getting too influential and wouldn't bow before the US or the Saudis. That's his real crime. The rebels internal in Syria and opposition outside of Syria are groups formed by everyone dissatisfied with Assad. It's like having the Occupy Wall Streeters, the Tea Party, the Gay Rights gang, the Christian right wingers all together against Obama. Gosh, what a surprise they can't come to any decision, don't coordinate, and are always in chaos. That's what Syria will be like instead of having one strong guy who has a long term plan to educate and prosper his people while leading them towards full democracy by installing reforms at a pace that can actually be absorbed by the mixed society. What a tyrant, what a scum bag. Except, his plan was working and our plan of shredding nations to try to gun down terrorists doesn't seem to be...

JanFearing
JanFearing

BTW. If you notice above where it says, "We Recommend" and there are other aricles listed? Look at the "A lack of swordsmen may lead Saudis to abolish beheadings"! I bet the shortage is due to the swordsmen all being in Syria! They didn't have kidnappings, rapes, beheadings, etc in Syria before the conflict no matter how many ex-pats try to make you think it. The Muslim Brotherhood has been against the law in Syria for decades but still they've been there, underground, and they became the Syrian Brotherhood. They work with their ex-pat friends who were kicked out of Syria for causing so much dissent. Ever wonder how the FSA formed almost overnight from "peaceful" demonstators? Well, policemen were killed from the get go by the peaceniks. We know Saudi mujahedeen were in Syria BEFORE the demontrations/revolution began because of a fatwa sent by a Saudi cleric the Feb that said they'd been there for 2 years!

SLShap
SLShap

%s %s we know that it's Syrius %s %s'llBeHereAllDay

jozyxuhulaj
jozyxuhulaj

%s Where you thinking when you got this tattoo? I think not! %s %sn88

jstewart57
jstewart57

The bulk of the population has been bled off in Iraq and Afghanistan?  That would be millions of people.

It would be good to know, however, whether the CIA is as good with human intel as they were when tracking UBL.

BrianMack
BrianMack

Obama is a Zionist puppet tool of the UN just like Bush. Hail Assad and God bless the Syrian Arab army; may they defeat the Saudi and Zionist funded jihadists dogs.

JanFearing
JanFearing

You think Assad's been murdering his own people? Well, I hate to break this to you, but he lives where terrorists come from! And why do we keep conveniently forgetting the way the Saudis treat their people? You think he's been shelling his people? Well, when you figure out how to fight terrorists and revolutionaries who hid in walls, why don't you let him know? BTW, its the same way we've been fighting the same enemy in Iraq!!!! The reason why some people have been exiled, imprisoned, some even tortured over the years? Because they've been trying to instigated an Islamic revolution for 3 decades. None of this makes sense. Check out the Diane Sawyer piece on Syria from 2007. Look at Charlie Rose's interview from 2010. You'll see why Qatar and SA are in this so deep: Assad was getting too much influence and people were starting to see that a mideast country could thrive when it was out from under Islamic fundamentalism and totalitarianism.

JanFearing
JanFearing

Dear Time, thanks for this article. But how about a REPORTER asking the question that no one has bothered to ask: President Obama, what is the RED LINE for the rebels? He will only ever put "Assad...chemical weapons" together. He NEVER has mentioned what we will do if the rebels use chems. Apparently, its not a red line to kidnap UN peacekeepers, demand ransom, and then lie embarassingly about it. It's not a red line to murder a octogenarian religious leader and then...lie about it. Everything Assad has said about this conflict is proving true and still the western media refuses to ask any real questions about it all. Why did the Christians support Assad from the get go? Because they and all minorities and religious groups HAD freedom and democracy (relatively speeking for the region) and it was getting better. Assad has huge popular support and its GAINING. How about asking why our gov't is trying to take down the ONE country in the region that was getting better and more civilized?

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@BrianMack 

All holy books are as holy as toilet paper... think about that next time you want yourself to be blown up for the sanctity if toilet paper.

DamhaHseniehsum
DamhaHseniehsum

@JanFearing I completely agree with everything you say. I'm glad to know that there are still some people with common sense. 

JanFearing
JanFearing

Thanks so much Damha. I'm so used to people coming back with F You I just had to say thanks. Here's hoping justice prevails somehow.