Belgium’s general intelligence and security service, SGRS, went to northern Syria in 2016 to negotiate with Kurdish combatants on possible military cooperation, according to the Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Organization, VRT. Defence Minister Steven Vandeput has always maintained that no Belgian military had been on the ground in Syria. On Friday, the minister said he was referring to armed, combat-ready troops, but that “military intelligence works in such a way that the soldiers can move around in a safe framework and collect useful information on Syrian combatants.”
Based on internal Defence sources, the VRT reported on Friday that two secret missions were carried out in Syria in 2016. There was certainly a superior officer, a mayor. These were “very short reconnaissance missions, something like one day long,” the sources said.
According to the VRT, however, they probably lasted more than a day, given the time it takes to reach a Syrian town by road from the border.
The SGRS was interested in collaborating with Kurdish fighters of the YPG in northeast Syria, who were then fighting the Islamic State terrorist group, as well as ‘Syrian’ fighters from Belgium. Belgian F-16 fighter planes were in operation above Syria at the time.
The VRT also reported that it was the former head of SGRS, Gen. Eddy Testlemans, who came up with the initiative, and that Steven Vandeput was not to be involved. Testlemans reportedly only obtained approval for the operation from the National Security Council, in encrypted form, after it was completed. This procedure allowed everyone to be covered politically.
Reacting on Friday, Vandeput said he “prefer(red) not to know the details of all operations “ of the military intelligence service, which sometimes had to talk with people “with whom we would like not to have to talk to”.
He also stressed that these types of operation were by definition secret, but were carried out based on an intelligence plan to which a very rigorous legal framework is associated. Finally, the minister recalled that Committee R, which supervises the activities of information services, was informed of every operation.
However, for Green parliamentarian Wouter De Vriendt, the matter shows the “cowboy mentality” of the SGRS. It is unlikely that these people were able to leave for Syria without a political cover, said De Vriendt, adding that this operation had been missed by minister Vandeput.