The Central Intelligence Agency and its regional partners have drawn up plans to supply more-powerful weapons to moderate rebels in Syria fighting the Russia-backed regime in the event the country’s six-week-old truce collapses, according to U.S. and other officials.
The preparations for a so-called Plan B center on providing vetted rebel units with weapons systems that would help them in directing attacks against Syrian regime aircraft and artillery positions, the officials said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported in February that President Barack Obama’s top military and intelligence advisers were pressing the White House to come up with a Plan B to counter Russia in Syria. Since then, fresh details have emerged on the nature of the new weaponry that could be deployed under the covert program.
The preparations were discussed at a secret meeting of spy chiefs in the Middle East just before the cease-fire took effect on Feb. 27 and in follow-on exchanges between intelligence services.In those meetings, officials briefed on the deliberations said,coalition members received provisional assurances from the CIA that they would be given approval to expand support to Syria’s moderate opposition. Coalition members have agreed on the outlines of Plan B, but the White House must still approve the list of specific Plan B weapons systems before they can be introduced to the battlefield.
The private message conveyed by U.S. officials to their Russian counterparts, who have backed the Assad regime with air power since last year, has been that the moderate opposition isn’t going awayand that a return to full-scale fighting could end up putting more Russian pilots in danger, according to U.S. officials.
To coalition partners including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the CIA has twinned assurances that the U.S. will allow the anti-Assad coalition to supply more weapons with warnings that they would be mistaken to go behind Washington’s back to provide weapons systems that Mr. Obama has decided so far not to introduce to the battlefield.The agency’s principal concern focuses on man-portable air-defense systems, known as Manpads. The CIA believes that rebels have obtained a small number of Manpads through illicit channels. Fearing these systems could fall into terrorists’ hands for use against civilian aircraft, the spy agency’s goal now is to prevent more of them from slipping uncontrollably into the war zone, according to U.S. and intelligence officials in the region.
To get U.S. allies to back off their demands, U.S. officials have proposed alternative systems that Washington believes would pose less of a proliferation danger. That is how the U.S. has responded to calls by Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the introduction of a limited number of Manpads in Syria during the Plan B discussions.Officials say the CIA and its regional partners are looking at different types of antiaircraft weapons, including Soviet-era systems that would be less mobile.But alternative systems, such as anti-aircraft batteries which come mounted on vehicles, may be easier targets for Syrian and Russian aircraft, according to officials involved in the deliberations.