Islamist rebels in Syria, the lead force in the armed opposition, would benefit from a U.S. bombing campaign against the Syrian regime and advance their goal of seizing power in Damascus, analysts said Wednesday.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who advocates tough actions against Syria and its ally Iran, said the emergence of Sunni Muslim extremists means the Obama administration must publicly align itself more strongly with the Free Syrian Army, headed by a former general who defected from the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Gen. McInerney said the Free Syrian Army, which is tied to a handful of effective militias, is the best credible check against growing jihadist forces.
"All the others are either radical Islamists or Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda," he told The Washington Times.
The Obama administration in 2012 endorsed an umbrella group that includes the Free Syrian Army.
The Congressional Research Service reported this summer, "As of June 2013, Sunni extremist groups appear to be increasingly active in Syria, including groups sympathetic to or affiliated with Al Qaeda."
This year, extremists have attempted to take over territory with force and by establishing municipal services, food aid, hospitals and Islamic, or Shariah law, courts.
About that time, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued statements calling on terrorists to create a "jihadist Islamic state" in Syria.
List gets longer
The list of Islamic groups fighting to overthrow Mr. Assad, and install some type of Islamic government, gets longer.
There is the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, perhaps the largest Islamic group at tens of thousands of members. It includes the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria as well as hard-line Salafist Sunni Muslims.
There is the Syrian Islamic Front, which encompasses a powerful fighting force called Ahrar al-Sham.
And there are two violent al Qaeda-linked groups: the Al Nusra Front, which numbers about 6,000; and the Islamic State of Iraq, which is fighting a two-front war against the government in Syria, as well as Iraq.
"Even if that's true — that Islamic groups dominate the opposition — the organization and coordination of forces aligned with U.S. interests are still the most capable of pushing through," said Joe Kasper, spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who toured the region this week.
"And it's all the more reason to provide the right actors with the small arms and training to effectively remove the Assad regime."
He added, "Anytime there is an opportunity for the taking, Islamic extremists will do everything they can to take power."
The Times previously asked a U.S. official to assess the power of the Al Nusra Front, the most active al Qaeda group in Syria.
The official said, "The Nusra Front is clearly playing an important role in the opposition because the group's roughly 6,000 fighters are disciplined, well-armed and capable. They've also partnered effectively with other rebel brigades. However, Nusra is still just one part of a complex, multipronged opposition that doesn't have one dominant force."
It remains to be seen what type of air campaign President Obama will order against Syria in retaliation for the regime's suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians and whether the air strikes would significantly help Mr. Assad's foes.
The Navy has positioned destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its only ship-to-shore firepower are Tomahawk cruise missiles and perhaps a few armed drones.
Mr. Obama, and his top military adviser, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have expressed great reservations about any military action. This was before confirmation that the Assad regime unleashed chemical weapons Aug. 21, killing more than 300 people.
'As little as possible'
Their statements appear to make it unlikely that the president would order waves of jet fighters over Syria.
"I think the administration will be tempted to do as little as possible — fling a few cruise missiles at symbolic targets, claim victory and declare that the crisis is over," said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
"The targets are likely to include chemical weapons production plants, military units that unleashed the chemical weapons and possibly air defenses. But such limited symbolic strikes would not decisively affect the fighting on the ground or force Assad from power."
John Pike, who runs GlobalSecurity.org, said the White House wants to do "as little as possible."
"Obama is caught between a basic desire to do as little as decently possible, while having to do enough to restore intrawar deterrence, which requires placing at risk things the regime holds dear, which might require a much more extensive campaign," he said.
"But deterrence is in the mind of the beholder, and without having some idea why Bashar did this deed, it might be hard to know what needs to be hit to place him in a deterred frame of mind, and I have yet to hear a theory on why this and why now."
Another problem is the cost. The military is under orders to cut another $52 billion out of next year's spending unless a White House-congressional deal is reached to head off automatic budget cuts called sequestration.
"I would not advocate a no-fly zone and would strongly oppose it, as it requires too many sorties to accomplish," Gen. McInerney said.
"In Libya where we had one, it cost us $1 billion-plus to implement and it took six months to maintain. In Syria, it would cost us $2 billion-plus and greater than six months because the Syrian air defense system is far more sophisticated and their air force is much larger."
Gen. Dempsey has made no secret of his opposition to direct military action in Syria.
On Aug. 4, Gen. Dempsey declared on ABC News, "The one thing we're not doing is becoming engaged directly."
Asked whether the long war in Iraq has influenced his thinking on Syria, Gen. Dempsey said, "It has branded in me the idea that the use of military power must be part of an overall strategic solution that includes international partners and whole of government and that simply application of force rarely produces, in fact maybe never produces, the outcome that we seek."
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