LOS ANGELES/BEIRUT – The CIA is collecting information on Islamic radicals in Syria for possible drone strikes at a later stage, The Los Angeles Times reported late Friday, the second anniversary of Syria’s uprising.
Citing unnamed current and former U.S. officials, the newspaper said that U.S. President Barack Obama had not authorized any drone missile strikes in Syria yet and none were under consideration.
However, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which runs drone programs targeting militants in Pakistan and Yemen, has recently shifted several targeting officers to improve intelligence gathering on militants in Syria.
The targeting officers have formed a unit with colleagues who were tracking al-Qaida operatives in Iraq. Veteran militants from Iraq are believed to have moved to Syria and joined Islamic antigovernment militias there, the report said.
The targeting officers focusing on Syria are based at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the paper said. But the agency is working closely with Saudi, Jordanian and other regional spy services active in Syria, according to The Times. The preparations come as radical Islamic fighters have won a growing share of rebel victories in Syria, the paper said.
Meanwhile, there were only small protests and a few firecrackers defiantly popping in the capital of Damascus — a grim contrast to the early days when crowds of demonstrators danced to the drums of rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
Syrians on Friday marked the start of the revolt by saying they feared for their country’s future amid a grinding civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000, displaced millions, wrecked whole neighborhoods in cities and towns, and turned neighbor against neighbor.
Assad has been digging in, mobilizing loyal forces for a protracted battle, while Western powers remain opposed to arming the Syrian opposition, even if Britain and France last week began pushing for lifting a European Union arms embargo.
“Bashar Assad really does not feel that he is about to lose anytime soon,” said Salman Shaikh, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. “He feels there is no Western resolve up to now. He feels he’s got enough forces.”
While the U.S. and several EU member states oppose arming the rebels, for fear of further inflaming the conflict and seeing weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron argued at an EU summit Friday that Assad will only negotiate the terms of a political transition if he no longer feels he can win militarily.