What does the Baltic Sea resort of Eckernförde have to do with the civil war in Syria? A lot as it turns out: the town is home to the German navy’s three fleet service vessels. These reconnaissance ships are equipped with state-of-the-art listening devices and can monitor and evaluate radio and other electrical signals over great distances.
And that is what they have been doing off the coast of Syria for several months. On August 8, the "Oker" left Eckernförde and headed for the Mediterranean. Under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Omar de Stefano, the 83.5-meter (274 feet) long ship, which weighs over 3,000 tons, will patrol there on a “national mandate” until December. A spokesperson for the German Federal Armed Forces said that the exact nature of the mission was however confidential.
But it is by no means top secret. Two months ago, the "Oker"’s sister ship, the "Oste," returned from a 115-day mission in the same area -- which is to say off the North African coast and the southeastern part of the Mediterranean. At that time the commander of the German naval base told the local Kieler Nachrichten newspaper that the ship had gathered information that made getting “an independent picture of the situation” possible and had thus made “an important contribution to Germany’s security policy decision-making options.”
The ship was not obstructed in any way by the Syrian navy, which is remarkable considering that the German navy’s third fleet service boat, the "Alster," had earlier in the year had the cannon of a Syrian warship aimed at it -- albeit not fired.
Gathering information for the Syrian opposition
One thing is clear: both the Oste and the Alster were there to gather information about Syria, and the Oker, presently anchored in a Sardinian port, is gearing up to do the same. The information is sent to the Kommando für strategische Aufklärung (Strategic Reconnaissance Command) in Gelsdorf near Bonn, where it is studied along with satellite images for political decision-makers in Berlin.
The ships are not however the German government’s only source of intelligence -- the German foreign intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) is also active in Syria. In fact, BND head Gerhard Schindler told Die Welt that the service was concentrating on Syria now, which is why the government possessed “quality information” that gave it “solid insight into the situation in the country.”
According to the publication Bild am Sonntag, BND agents are stationed at the Turkish NATO base Adana and are monitoring telephone calls and radio traffic from there. Additionally, BND agents maintain informal contacts with sources in the inner circle of President Bashar al-Assad.
Bild am Sonntag also said that the intelligence gathered wasn’t only for the German government but also aimed at the Syrian opposition. While there is no concrete evidence to support this, it is in principle entirely conceivable as Germany shares its intelligence with NATO allies -- of which Turkey is one. The Sunday Times also quoted a Syrian rebel saying they had received intelligence from the Turks.