British intelligence on Syrian troop movements is helping rebels in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it was revealed today.
The disclosure by a Syrian opposition official is the first indication of British intelligence playing a covert role in the civil war.
The official told The Sunday Times the British authorities ‘know about and approve 100 per cent’ signals intelligence from their Cyprus bases being passed through Turkey to the rebel troops of the Free Syrian Army.
‘British intelligence is observing things closely from Cyprus. It’s very useful because they find out a great deal,’ the official said.
‘The British are giving the information to the Turks and the Americans and we are getting it from the Turks.’
According to the official, the most valuable intelligence so far has been about the movements of troops loyal to President Assad towards the stricken second city of Aleppo, which is partly controlled by rebels.
Early this month FSA fighters had reported that two large columns of government troops were heading towards Aleppo.
One was from Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and the other from Damascus, the capital. The fighters did not reveal the source of their intelligence at the time.
The official said rebels ambushed troops and a column of more than 40 tanks in a valley near Saraqib, cut them off and destroyed many of them with repeat attacks with rocket-propelled grenades.
Civil war: Smoke billowing from the scene of a bomb explosion in central Damascus
Britain has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus at Dhekelia and Akrotiri. They draw intelligence from the airwaves for GCHQ, Britain’s listening post in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
The opposition official said rebel forces in Aleppo had also received US satellite imagery, which the Turks had passed on from the CIA.
MI6 and the CIA are understood to be tacitly condoning the supply of heavy machineguns from Gulf countries to the rebels.
The rebels claim to have shot down at least two helicopters, part of a fleet used by Assad’s regime to try and crush the growing rebellion. But they do not have enough to be effective.
One diplomat denied that the British were ‘facilitating’ the supply of heavy machineguns. But he said he could not rule out the possibility that private contractors financed by countries such as Qatar were involved in providing arms. Wealthy families in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are understood to be providing substantial financial support to the rebel forces.
Opposition fighters also benefit from the monitoring by British bases of ships along the Syrian coast from countries friendly towards Assad.
Britain has officially ruled out giving any covert help to the rebels. It is understood that William Hague, the foreign secretary, has been advised that it would be illegal under international law for Britain to supply weapons directly to any group in Syria, which is covered by a European Union arms embargo.