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?

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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.

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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.