Just after posting, this came in via my Twitter feed Among Syria’s Islamist Fighters.
Obama’s proposed strike at the forces of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is filled with ironies. We have the man who had pledged to make America more respected reducing America to a laughingstock, we have the man who praised Assad as a moderating force in the Middle East about to bomb said moderating force, we have a Nobel Peace Prize winner about to launch an unprovoked attack on one party in a civil war… that could have been stopped or mitigated by the Nobel Peace Prize winner two years ago, and we have the sorry spectacle of the United States about to aid the same al Qaeda that we are killing with drones in Pakistan and Yemen.
This is not conjecture on my part, it was acknowledged by Secretary of State John Kerry in testimony to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee where he acknowledged 15% to 25% of the opposition force in Syria were “extremists” of a total field force of as many as 100,000 fighters. (As an aside, the existence of 100,000 opposition fighters seems highly improbable if the number is limited to effectives in the field.) That translates, for the low information readers out there, as up to 25,000 fighters who are members of or allied with al Qaeda.
The entire comment bears reading:
But in testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3, Kerry said it was “basically incorrect” to claim Syria’s opposition is becoming more infiltrated by Al-Qaeda militants. Kerry told lawmakers that “extremists” now make up 15-25 percent of all antiregime fighters in Syria. He said the total number of opposition fighters was “in the tens of thousands,” with estimates between 80,000 and 100,000. He also said the latest intelligence showed the number of Al-Qaeda fighters among the rebels is lower than “previously expected.”
“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…[the] democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria,” Kerry added.
A couple of things we know. First, as civil wars progress the sides rarely, if ever, become more moderate. The longer the war last the more loss that is inflicted on the opposing sides and less willing the sides are to attempt compromise. The larger point is that if the rebels are 25% al Qaeda and that number is lower than anticipated then what percent did the administration expect to be al Qaeda?
His assertion has prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to call Kerry out as a liar.
Speaking to his human rights council (Ed note: okay, I did laugh when I read that), Mr Putin recalled watching a congressional debate where Mr Kerry was asked about al-Qaeda. Mr Putin said he had denied that it was operating in Syria, even though he was aware of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group.
Mr Putin said: “This was very unpleasant and surprising for me. We talk to them (the Americans) and we assume they are decent people, but he is lying and he knows that he is lying. This is sad.”
Putin’s veracity, of course, is open to question but in this case I think I believe him. Regardless of whatever you think about the man, Putin does hate him some radical muslims. They are the last people he’d ever want to see prevail in Syria. Secondly, Kerry’s statement runs contrary to our own intelligence community’s assessment.
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.
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.
“In a hard-fought civil war, especially one without a single well-organized opposition movement, success goes to the most ruthless and dedicated elements, which also tend to be the most extreme in their views. We are seeing such a process in Syria today,” Pillar said.
Today the New York Times reported on the increasing prominence of al Qaeda and al Qaeda allied forces in Syria:
Much of the concern among American officials has focused on two groups that acknowledge ties to Al Qaeda. These groups — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — have attracted foreign jihadis, used terrorist tactics and vowed to create a society in Syria ruled by their severe interpretation of Islamic law.
They have established a firm presence in parts of Aleppo and Idlib Provinces and in the northern provincial capital of Raqqa and in Deir al-Zour, to the east on the Iraqi border.
While the jihadis claim to be superior fighters, and have collaborated with secular Syrian rebels, some analysts and diplomats also note that they can appear less focused on toppling President Bashar al-Assad. Instead, they said, they focus more on establishing a zone of influence spanning Iraq’s Anbar Province and the desert eastern areas of Syria, and eventually establishing an Islamic territory under their administration.
This squares precisely with earlier reports that al Qaeda affiliated fighters are engaged in ethnic cleansing in Syrian Kurdistan — the Kurds have been fervently anti-al Qaeda for a couple of decades — and the spate of bomb attacks in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
The al Qaeda faction is obviously focused on the Syrian civil war with a markedly more strategic view than that being employed by Obama. Of course, the same could be said of my dog’s approach to a Syrian policy. While they are attempted to carve out a substantial area of the Middle East as an area they control, our president is flailing about trying to salvage some semblance of credibility.