Secretary of State Kerry has portrayed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as an organization largely made up of moderates with a few extremists who’ve joined the fight against the Syrian regime. However, his statements have been challenged now, not by anti-war groups or nations opposed to Western military action in Syria, but by U.S. and European intelligence services.
At congressional hearings this week, while making the case for President Barack Obama’s plan for limited military action in Syria, Kerry asserted that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.
“And the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
However this appears to very much be an overstatement.
As recently as late July, at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd, estimated that there were at least 1,200 different Syrian rebel groups and that Islamic extremists, notably the Nusra Front, were well-placed to expand their influence.
“Left unchecked, I’m very concerned that the most radical elements will take over larger segments” of the opposition groups, Shedd said. He added that the conflict could drag on anywhere “from many, many months to multiple years” and that a prolonged stalemate could leave open parts of Syria to potential control by radical fighters.
U.S. and allied intelligence sources said that such assessments have not changed.
Jabhat al-Nusra is an offshoot of al-Qa’ida in Iraq and given the need for the FSA to muster armed force against Assad’s army moderate groups have been working in combination with extremist groups. That leaves the question open as to who is in charge and who will be in charge if Assad is defeated.
“Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But a second official, who also asked not to be named, said moderate rebels may have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said.
Additionally, there are reports that al-Nusra is using extremist tactics such as suicide bombings in their offensives. Just today such an attack was in a battle near Maaloula, a Christian region home to some of the oldest historical sites in the Middle East.
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