Al Qaeda-linked groups operating alongside Syria’s rebels are growing stronger, analysts told Congress on Tuesday, countering recent claims by the Obama administration and some senior lawmakers that extremists are playing only a marginal role in the civil war.
“Al Qaeda and its allies dominate a large portion of northern Syria and play a key role in fighting throughout the rest of the country,” Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee.
While Mr. Joscelyn said “al Qaeda does not control the entire rebellion, which is made up of a complex set of actors,” his testimony stood in stark contrast to that provided last week by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who sought to downplay the role of extremists among Syria’s opposition fighters.
Mr. Kerry had followed the lead of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, during hearings last week by touting the work of Syria analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy, a researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Ms. O’Bagy, who has also acknowledged having been paid to work for another group that lobbies in Washington in favor of deeper U.S. engagement in Syria, wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal that “the war in Syria is not being waged entirely or even predominantly by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda diehards.”
Mr. Kerry’s citing of the article drew criticism on two fronts. On the one hand, analysts wondered why he had not cited official U.S. government intelligence assessments. On the other, his characterization represented a sudden break from previous concerns expressed by the Obama administration about the extremist elements in the Syrian opposition groups fighting the government of President Bashar Assad — concerns the administration cited for not aiding the rebels with more extensive military aid.
In written testimony, Mr. Joscelyn told the House panel Tuesday, “These same al Qaeda-affiliated forces have fought alongside Free Syrian Army brigades. There is no clear geographic dividing line between the most extreme fighters and other rebels.”
Furthermore, Mr. Joscelyn said, “Al Qaeda has made the fight for Syria a strategic priority” since the organization, which means “the Base” in Arabic, seeks to “establish an Islamic Emirate in the heart of the Levant.”
Meanwhile, uncertainties continue to swirl around the issue of how the al Qaeda-linked groups now operating in Syria will conduct themselves should Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government suddenly disintegrate — a possible scenario in the event that U.S. military strikes are launched.
“There is serious concern that if Assad falls, the extremist wings of the rebel movement will fill the vacuum and take over Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
Mr. McCaul said a statement that the task of “securing these weapons will take an international coalition, and will ensure that they can neither be used by Assad or the extremist elements of the rebel forces.”