News / Middle East

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.
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.
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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Comment Sorting
by: Rudy Haugeneder from: Canada
September 05, 2013 12:36 PM
When Kerry says jihadi fighters only make up a quarter of the organized rebel forces, the evidence suggests he is either lying or doesn't understand reality.
The Jihadi extremists are in control of the organized opposition and will turn Syria into an Muslim extremist country -- after exterminating the millions of Alawite Muslims, Christian Druze, and moderate Sunni: millions of them and whose blood will be on American hands.

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
September 05, 2013 9:10 AM
Let's agree that the US is not doing the right thing here. Mr. president is asking for a strike on Syria, but he chooses to delay, to drag the foot and filibuster until the use of force becomes stale. Another mistake is asking for limited engagement; that is if the bill sells through in the first place - wherein I bet the president wishes it doesn't. Limited strike is leaving a chaotic Syria in more devastating condition, not just in infrastructure but more importantly, in terms of leaving a weakened Syria in the hands of terrorists.

The US has learned nothing from the experiences in Egypt and Libya where the countries were submitted to terrorists on a platta of gold. Limited strike simply means to make same mistake in Syria, remove Assad, and leave the country in a worse state than you met it. If that happens, definitely it will be the tapestry of terrorist organizations that will be at an advantage and will surely reposition themselves to establish an Islamic republic of Syria. Then the problem will be multiplied for both the USA and its allies in the region. Someone says GOD FORBID.

by: Anonymous
September 04, 2013 8:11 PM
The west should definately solidify things with the FSA and make certain chemical weapons do not get into the wrong hands. The head of the FSA should be meeting with US representitives. As well the US Administration should not just rely on the Chemical Weapons apparently used by assad. They should also have him held accountable for crimes against the Syrians for dropping bombs in civilian areas. This is not just murder but destruction as well which is worse than chemical weapons. Dropping bombs on civilian populated buildings as well as streets without any consideration for human life is just plain murder. Especially also using banned weaponry. These are heinous crimes, assad crossed the red line long ago before chemical weapons came in to play....

Lastly what the west SHOULD DO, is have an option for assad, a "Way Out" a way that he can peacefully hand over all chemical weapons and leave town so that a democratic Syria can take place. Give him 1 option out, otherwise continue with what is in store. If he take the option then he cares about the Nation and the world in regards to chemical weapons. If not, he will pay through the nose. It would not hurt one bit to give him 1 way out on behalf of making things easier on the Syrian people.

by: charlie from: California Republic
September 04, 2013 7:05 PM
I voted for John Kerry against Bush for president. But Kerry lied to Congress when he told them Al Quaida is not in Syria. The Jihadist factions, the liver eating wing of the rebels, show every mark of terrorism to me. Kerry may smoothly lie to cover the truth. Senators may blithely accept his lie. But Russia isn't and anybody anywhere who follows the Syrian Civil War in the news has just lost respect for the US Secretary of State. You can't lie about something that everyone informed about knows is a lie. I doubt this comment will appear, but overall VOA is a good source of news from a US perspective.

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