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Al Qaeda’s strength with Syrian rebels now being downplayed
Question of the Day
The Obama administration has started to rebrand Syria’s rebels by de-emphasizing the number of al Qaeda fighters among them — a move critics say is based on questionable intelligence designed to downplay the risks associated with a U.S. military strike on the regime of President Bashar Assad.
After two years of the Obama administration arguing that the Syrian rebellion was rife with fighters linked to al Qaeda, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said last week that Islamic extremists are marginal players in Syria’s civil war and are unlikely to profit much from a U.S. bombing campaign.
His new characterization of the opposition has drawn scrutiny — in large part because of the way Mr. Kerry backed it up. Rather than cite official U.S. intelligence assessments, he pointed to an Aug. 30 opinion article penned for The Wall Street Journal by a 26-year-old analyst with ties to a group that lobbies in Washington on behalf of the Syrian rebels.
But that view was challenged by Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, who said the classified briefings he receives as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security indicated that “the majority now of these rebel forces — and I say majority now — are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world to come to Syria for the fight.”
Who the rebels are matters. Some lawmakers have pushed for months for the U.S. to take a more active role in arming them in their struggle to unseat Mr. Assad, while others say that could lead to American hardware in the hands of extremists.
More recently, opponents of strikes in Syria have said a U.S. attack could end up benefiting the radical elements of the rebellion.
After the hearings, questions swirled through Washington’s foreign policy community about why Mr. Kerry had been so quick to defend his argument by citing the work of a nongovernmental researcher — rather than an official assessment produced by the U.S. intelligence community.
The State Department’s office of public affairs did not respond to a request by The Washington Times for comment.
Ms. O'Bagy’s work was first raised in a Senate hearing last week by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has been pushing for broader U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels, and who asked Mr. Kerry whether he agreed with Ms. O'Bagy’s assessment.
In an interview with The Times on Monday night, Ms. O'Bagy said she was as befuddled as anyone else by attention given to her work by Mr. Kerry. “I myself have asked why he would quote me and not quote intelligence sources,” she said.
Some analysts speculated that Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry may have sought to draw attention to Ms. O'Bagy’s work because the official intelligence assessment on Syria’s opposition is classified and because her article offered a chance to point to open-sourced intelligence that fit with their argument.
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About the Author
Guy Taylor rejoined The Washington Times in 2011 as the State Department correspondent.
As a freelance journalist, Taylor’s work was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Fund For Investigative Journalism, and his stories appeared in a variety publications, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to Salon, Reason, Prospect Magazine of London, the Daily Star of Beirut, the ...
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