CIA Director Shows Up in Israel: Syria the Main Topic, But Coordinating with Turkey and Watching Iran are Huge Concerns, Too

John Brennan, the long-time counter-terrorism advisor to President Obama who this year became Director of the CIA, flew to Israel — on a working visit not announced in advance.

Officials suggested that the main topic, in consultations on Friday (May 17), was Syria: what might be done to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons and advanced missiles from the Syrian military to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Inevitably the United States and Israel would also be exchanging assessments of how long Bashar al-Assad’s regime may survive — and how to handle a possible transition to a new phase of radicalism and chaos.

Word was leaked to Israeli reporters that Brennan was spending time with Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, the defense minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s reshaped government coalition. No one had to announce — and no one did — that Brennan was also getting together with Israel’s intelligence chiefs, notably the Mossad director Tamir Pardo.

A little noticed aspect of these secret talks involves Turkey. Barack Obama, during his first visit to Israel as President in March, made a point of cajoling Netanyahu and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to talk by phone and bury their growing hatchet.

Tamir Pardo

Sources close to the situation say the CIA has had a major role in bringing together the Mossad and Turkey’s foreign intelligence agency MIT. For decades, mostly without public acknowledgment by their governments, the “alternative diplomats” of the spy services had kept in close touch — and embarked on cooperative projects, generally aimed at their common enemies.

Brennan spoke about Israeli-Turkish covert cooperation with Pardo, preparing the ground for stronger coordination among the CIA, the Mossad, MIT, Jordan’s intelligence services, Britain’s MI6 (now known as SIS), and the French foreign espionage agency DGSE.

Their immediate subject is Syria — notably the possibility that anti-Western radicals who may be affiliated with al-Qaeda could continue to grow in territory and power inside Syria. If the international community decides to become more involved in Syria’s civil war, then the Western and pro-Western intelligence agencies would have a central role.

Brennan also discussed Iran’s nuclear program with Pardo. American and Israeli assessments of what Iran’s scientists have accomplished, and what the Iranian political and military echelons may be planning, are not precisely the same. As is well known, the “timing” issues — when the U.S. or Israel might have to take extreme action — are not seen in identical ways in Washington and Jerusalem.

Analysts in both intelligence agencies, the CIA and the Mossad, feel it is clear that after Iran’s presidential election next month — which might, of course, require a second round of voting — the Iranians will face a crucial decision: whether to move more quickly toward assembling a nuclear bomb, and speeding up the machining and engineering needed to fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile that could reach Israel and other American allies.

Is something up — something imminent? In the Middle East, which is unusually volatile in the two years since the “Arab Spring” uprisings broke out, almost anything could happen at any time. But no, no one in authority is suggesting that the United States, Israel, or both are about to launch any violent, dramatic action.

May 17, 2013

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