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Syria's Jihadist Opposition Groups a Dilemma for US

Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, testifies on Capitol Hill, Sept. 4, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, testifies on Capitol Hill, Sept. 4, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Obama administration is planning to step up its efforts to improve the fighting abilities of Syrian rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad, according to Pentagon officials.

The officials say they are considering deploying special-forces teams drawn from the U.S. military to help train Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades considered to be ideologically moderate.

The Pentagon officials, who spoke on background, say the U.S. military has pushed for a greater role in training and arming rebels, a task so far handled by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Military officials say the intelligence agency has been over cautious following President Obama’s undertaking in June to provide weapons to rebel forces. Obama made that undertaking in response to the battlefield successes of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that supports Assad.

Criticism has risen on Capitol Hill about the pace of the training and arming initiative and Obama officials indicated yesterday during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they too want to increase the range and pace of the assistance.

“Our goal is to help the opposition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers yesterday, but he avoided going into details.

The hearing was convened to consider the Obama administration’s request for congressional authorization to launch limited strikes against Syria in reprisal for the alleged use by Assad forces of chemical weapons two weeks ago.

Assad to be held accountable

Obama officials led by Kerry say any strike would seek to hold the Assad government accountable for the poison gas attacks on several suburbs of the Syrian capital of Damascus on August 21 that may have killed 1,400 and injured more than 3,000, degrade its ability to launch attacks and deter the future use of chemical weapons in the brutal 30-month-long civil war that according to the United Nations has left more than 100,000 Syrians dead.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have urged President Obama to be more ambitious and not to restrict U.S. action to limited airstrikes against Assad, but to intervene to change the momentum on the battlefield in favor of the rebels helping them to topple Assad.

The likelihood that the administration will shift lead responsibility from the CIA to the Pentagon appears to be assisting the administration to persuade some of the more hawkish lawmakers to back Obama’s request to launch tailored retaliatory airstrikes, say analysts. McCain and Graham have criticized Obama for not doing enough to weaken Assad and have maintained that the administration should have a more defined end-goal than just punishing Assad for his use of chemical warfare.

In classified briefings Wednesday in the Senate, Obama administration officials were expected to go into greater detail about U.S. intelligence findings indicating that Assad was responsible for the August 21 toxic gas attacks. They also were expected to outline their proposed reprisal strikes and expand on what assistance they now plan to provide the FSA.

Fraught with risks

But some independent analysts warn that the administration’s plan to embrace the rebels is fraught with risks, arguing that jihadist and radical Islamist groups remain the best organized and most effective of the rebel forces. They question the administration’s recent depiction of rebel brigades as becoming more ideologically moderate -- a position Kerry adopted in yesterday’s hearing when pressed about the make-up of rebel forces.

In response to questions whether jihadists and al-Qaida offshoots had thoroughly penetrated rebel militias, Kerry responded: “The opposition 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, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.”

“I don’t agree,” says Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar at the Washington, D.C.–based think tank, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He argues the al-Qaida-affiliates the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra are the most powerful of the rebel brigades.

“The Nusra Front and the Islamic State, along with a range of other Salafi factions, remain a serious problem,” said Schanzer. “The jihadi factions are still among the most effective fighting forces in the Syrian opposition.”

This past spring, the Obama administration rebuffed rebel appeals for the supply of weapons and also called on Gulf allies backing the Syrian rebels not to supply anti-aircraft missiles. The fear was that any missiles delivered to the FSA would be eventually shared with jihadists.

Jihadists have advanced weapons

In March, the al-Nusra front fighters were using anti-tank weapons supplied to the FSA by Saudi Arabia, according to regional experts. Syrian Jihadists as well fighters drawn from elsewhere in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, posted videos online showing they were using the supplied weaponry.

A man and boys inspect a site hit by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Duma, Damascus, Sept. 4, 2013.

A man and boys inspect a site hit by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Duma, Damascus, Sept. 4, 2013.

The rise of jihadist elements among the Syrian opposition has complicated Western strategy making. Earlier this year, Germany and several other European countries resisted British and French efforts to increase the flow of weapons to the rebels. European critics of the Anglo-French position said the intended recipients of the weapons, the FSA rebel units, work too closely with jihadists to keep the weapons to themselves.

“Secretary Kerry provided no information to back up his statement about the move to moderation, but all indications on the ground contradict his assertion,” says Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank.

“The Syrian uprising initially began by ordinary, pro-democracy citizens seeking an end to dictatorship,” Majidyar said. “Two years now into the civil war, however, al-Qaida-affiliated groups have emerged as the most powerful fighting force battling the Syrian government.

“At present,” he continued, “the most adequately equipped and well-trained insurgent groups in Syria are two al-Qaida affiliates. While these radical groups have benefited from an influx of foreign fighters joining their ranks and increasing funding from Sunni fundamentalists in the Gulf States, the genuine Syrian opposition has grown weaker and more fractured as a result of the international community’s failure to support and unite them.”

But Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week moderate Syrian groups were still in the forefront of the opposition effort.

“Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army—continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime…, she wrote. “They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils. And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.”

O’Bagy is also the political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a non-profit lobbying group in Washington D.C. closely linked with the FSA.

Kerry said Tuesday he agreed with O’Bagy’s assessment, arguing that the rebel make-up had “improved significantly” and that the “fundamentals of Syria are secular, and I believe, will stay that way.”

But analyst Ahmad Majidyar remains skeptical.

“Administration officials have said the same, but they haven't shared any information about what they're basing their assertion on," he said. "Kerry's claim that a post-Assad regime in Syria will be ‘secular’ is also just conjecture.”

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