- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2013

The rebel movement on the ground in many parts of Syria is led by Islamic extremist groups hostile to the United States and they are holding at least 15 Westerners hostage, most of the them journalists, according to a published account Friday of an American who recently escaped their clutches.

Matthew Schrier, 35, a freelance photographer from New York state, was held for seven months by insurgents fighting in a bloody uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He escaped last month by squeezing through a broken grate from the basement where he was jailed in the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. The New York Times published an extensive account of his ordeal.

Mr. Schrier’s captors included both al Qaeda-linked extremists in the al-Nusra Front and a faction called Ahrar al-Sham, fighting with the Western-backed umbrella group called the Free Syrian Army. Ahrar al-Sham is one of the largest of the dozen or so insurgent groups fighting the Syrian regime.

“They are extremists, no doubt,” a U.S. official told The Washington Times of the group, adding that it was larger than the al-Nusra Front and was estimated to have more than 10,000 supporters.

Mr. Schreir recalled how he was originally seized at a roadblock when trying to return to Turkey from Aleppo. Accused, apparently because of his nationality, of being a CIA agent, he was tortured repeatedly and forced to make videotaped confessions, including one while dressed in an orange jumpsuit, like those worn by U.S. detainees and federal prisoners.

“Have you heard of Guantanamo Bay?” his captors taunted him, he told the paper.

His captors demanded his Social Security number, passwords and PIN numbers, which they used to drain one of his bank accounts and shop on eBay for laptops and tablet computers, camera equipment and car parts.

His story also underlines the dilemma facing the United States and its allies in the region. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, in a letter to a congressional office this week, said U.S. military operations are greatly complicated by the fact that American officials can’t be sure any regime that replace Mr. Assad would be friendly to the United States.

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