EXCLUSIVE

02.08.13

Can Social Media Disarm Syria’s Chemical Arsenal?

When a bombing knocked out top Assad officials, Western intelligence agencies scrambled to find those left holding the deadly stash. Their tools: Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and more.

If you are a Syrian military officer in charge of some nasty chemical weapons, you’ve probably been friended or Skyped by the U.S. government. The message is simple: think twice before using or selling that mustard gas you are guarding.

On July 18, when a suicide bomber struck a meeting of Syria’s security cabinet, killing the defense minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, it was a major victory for Syria’s opposition. But it was also a cause for serious alarm at the Pentagon.

In public, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned what was left of the regime’s leadership to protect the state’s large stockpile of chemical weapons. Privately, the U.S. intelligence community began to worry that the Syrian officials known to have the ability to authorize the use of that arsenal were now dead or gravely injured.

A scramble then ensued: who were the midlevel officers in charge of the Syrian Air Force and Army units that controlled the stocks of sarin and mustard gas the Assad regime had been compiling for decades? And who was now running the Scud missiles and bombers that would be deployed to use these chemical weapons? According to current and retired U.S. and Western intelligence and defense officials, U.S. analysts began to hunt for email addresses, Twitter handles, Facebook accounts, phone numbers, and Skype contacts for those midlevel Syrian officers. The information was then used to deliver a pointed message: the U.S. government knows who you are, and there will be consequences if you use or transfer chemical weapons.

“The people who were killed and injured in that [July 18] suicide bombing were the people who we could try to persuade not to use this stuff,” says one congressional staffer who has been briefed extensively on the program. “When that happened, we needed to find another way to get to these guys.”

The project to reach out to Syria’s midlevel officers is an important part of the Obama administration’s planning for how to prevent the use and illicit transfer of Syria’s chemical arsenal. To date, President Obama has taken a cautious approach to the civil war inside the country, offering humanitarian aid, but choosing against arming the rebels. On Thursday, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they both favored a plan developed by the CIA to arm the rebels, a plan the White House rejected.

Obama has been publicly warning of grave consequences if the Syrians use chemical weapons or transfer them to groups like Hezbollah or al Qaeda. Israel, too, is establishing its own red lines. Last week, Israeli jets hit a convoy containing SA-17 rockets that was reportedly on the way to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For now, it’s unlikely Obama would authorize airstrikes on the known weapons depots and chemical labs. Instead, the hope is that Syrian officers can be persuaded to safeguard the material if the regime collapses.

Though high-level Russians have warned President Assad and other Syrians against using chemical weapons, U.S. officials say they don’t know how effective this approach might be.

Charles Duelfer, a former CIA officer who served as the deputy chairman of the U.N. weapons-inspection team for Iraq and later as the head of the U.S. effort to find those weapons after the 2003 invasion, said there were two kinds of goals these types of operations can accomplish. “You want to transmit a message of deterrence,” he says. “It’s not just Bashar at the top that will be held responsible, it’s others down the food chain, too. You also want to know where the stuff is.”

The effort to reach out to midlevel officers is separate from other initiatives by the Syrian opposition to persuade officers to defect. The initiative to contact the Syrian officers, according to U.S. and Western officials, has been aided by Israel’s Unit 8200, the section of the Israel Defense Forces in charge of signal intelligence, or the monitoring of electronic communications. 

Israel and the U.S. have utilized similar strategies in the past. Before the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was an intelligence operation to contact midlevel officers in charge of battalions and smaller units to persuade them to stand down—with the promise of better treatment later on. Israel sent text messages to the cellphones of Gazans in 2008 during Operation Cast Lead, warning of aerial bombardments.

For much of 2012, American diplomats also tried to work through Russia to secure Syria’s stash. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union trained Syria’s military and internal security services, and those relationships continued after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Though high-level Russians have warned President Assad and other Syrians against using chemical weapons, U.S. officials say they don’t know how effective this approach might be.

For the West, part of the problem is that Syria’s chemical-weapons infrastructure is largely secret. It was not until July of last year that any Syrian official even acknowledged the nation had such weapons. On July 23, Jihad Maqdisi, a spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, warned that Syria would deploy its unconventional weapons only if the country is invaded and would not use the weapons against civilians.

“We’ve been watching Syria’s biological- and chemical-weapons programs for a lengthy period of time with concern,” says Paula DeSutter, the former assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance in the George W. Bush administration. “Anyone pursuing these types of programs will do what they can to hide as much information as possible about their program, locations, and use protocol.”

It remains unclear what Damascus is up to. In July, U.S. intelligence satellites began to detect Syrian units moving Scuds closer to the country’s Turkish border and the border with Israel, current and former U.S. intelligence officials says. But in the last three months, U.S. and Western intelligence agencies have watched Syrian forces moving chemical weapons into fewer locations than before, these officials say.