Should Syrian President Bashar Assad's government come apart chaotically — a possible ramification of U.S. military strikes — the risk is high that al Qaeda-linked groups among Syria's opposition forces could gain access to the nation's lethal chemical weapons stocks, the head of the House Homeland Security Committee warned Tuesday.
"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 McCaul, Texas Republican, as the committee convened a hearing examining wider implications of Syria's ongoing civil war.
"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," Mr. McCaul said.
He added that the Obama administration's "widely telegraphed" plan to conduct U.S. military strikes in response to Mr. Assad's recent, alleged, use of chemical weapons "will not accomplish this goal."
The Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday featured testimony from former senior officials and analysts, including Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who told lawmakers that the extremist presence among Syria's rebels has grown stronger over the past two years.
Al Qaeda "does not control the entire rebellion, which is made up of a complex set of actors and alliances," Mr. Joscelyn said in written testimony. "However, al Qaeda and its allies dominate a large portion of northern Syria and play a key role in the fighting throughout the rest of the country."
"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. For example, al Qaeda's affiliates played a key role in the fighting in Latakia, an Assad stronghold on the coast, in early August. And within the past week we saw al Qaeda-affiliated fighters lead an attack in Malula, a Christian village not far from Damascus."
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."
His assessment ran counter to an argument that has been put forth in recent days by some lawmakers and by the Obama administration, which has appeared intent on rebranding Syria's rebels by de-emphasizing the number of al Qaeda fighters among them.
During hearings on Capitol Hill last week, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, touted the work of Syria analyst Elizabeth O'Bagy, who has researched Syria's rebels on behalf of 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, penned a recent article in the Wall Street Journal in which she asserted that "the war in Syria is not being waged entirely or even predominantly by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards."
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