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Syria Through the Eyes of Intelligence

U.S. policymakers, specifically the president and his senior national security officials, rely on the work of the intelligence community to understand the conflict in Syria and make decisions about whether or not to take action and what type of action to take.

Written by Tara Maller Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Intelligence undoubtedly informs the president’s views on myriad issues related to Syria.

The media and public frequently demand more information about the specific pieces of intelligence used to make high-level decisions. There are ways to provide the public with a better understanding of U.S. intelligence and how it works.

The first type of intelligence relied upon is OSINT, or open-source intelligence. It is drawn from publicly available media. This includes foreign newspapers, social media, academic reports and anything that is public and openly available. With regard to Syria, this would include newspaper articles in local Syrian press translated into English for analysts. It would also include reports put out by NGOs on the ground and information posted on social media accounts of individuals who are tweeting about the conflict and developments on the ground.

Another type of intelligence the community relies on is IMINT: collection of intelligence from such information as photographs and videos, including satellite images. With regard to Syria, this would include photos of victims in the aftermath of chemical attacks, overhead satellite imagery of the destruction of a Syrian town after it is attacked, or even imagery of sites believed to be storing chemical weapons facilities in the country.

A third type of intelligence is SIGINT, or Signals Intelligence. This intelligence is based on information gathered via various communications systems, such as telephone or emails.

In the case of Syria, the unclassified report released by the administration cited SIGINT when it referred to intercepted communications regarding the regime and the chemical attack that took place. The report states, “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”

Another type of intelligence is HUMINT, which is intelligence gathered via people. According to the CIA website, HUMINT is defined as “any information that can be gathered from human sources.”

Finally, another form of intelligence is Measurement and Signals Intelligence or MASINT, which is intelligence derived technically, including information gained by chemical tests of an area, by measurement of radio waves or seismic data. In the case of Syria, MASINT was probably used to analyze the types of chemicals used in the attack via soil sample testing.

These are the analysts most likely to be working on Syria situation:

Counterterrorism analysts help warn of terrorist threats by assessing the leadership, motivations, plans and intentions of foreign terrorist groups and their state and nonstate sponsors. These analysts are most likely looking at terrorist groups or groups with ties to terrorist organizations within Syria. They are probably working closely with military analysts to assess the composition of the rebel groups and understand groups with ties to al-Qaida like al-Nusra.

Economic analysts use their specialized skills to analyze and interpret economic trends and developments and assess and track foreign financial activities. In addition to looking at the economy throughout Syria and how various cities are being impacted by the situation there, they are also looking at issues pertaining to oil prices in the region and money flowing into groups that may be used to purchase weapons or enhance fighting capabilities.

Intelligence collection analysts apply their expertise on intelligence collection systems capabilities, processes and policies to drive the flow of intelligence information. Collection analysts help analysts writing reports get the types of information and data they need to understand the problems they are trying to solve with regard to Syria, such as if someone needs more information on refugee flows.

With regard to Syria, intelligence reports over the last few months may have focused on the analysis of the refugee flows to neighboring countries, or the types of attacks  being carried out within the country, or an examination of key rebel groups, or an assessment of the stockpiles at specific chemical weapons sites throughout the country.

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