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.
In hearings before Congress last week, Mr. Kerry said he generally agreed with the assessment, written by Elizabeth O’Bagy, who works at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
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.
The Obama administration initially urged caution in arming the rebels, but Mr. Kerry’s remarks suggested that could be changing.
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.
She said she has never met Mr. Kerry but has met Mr. McCain. As part of her work with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, she said, she helped arrange a trip that the senator made to Syria in May.
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.
Analysts poked at the argument that Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain were making.
“I obviously don’t agree with that analysis,” said Aaron Zelin, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace who penned a paper examining the extremist strands within Syria’s opposition forces. “I think it’s somewhat naive because all the key offenses in Syria and all the key liberations of cities during 2013 have been led by Islamist forces.”
Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry have “a more optimistic view of things and they’re more idealistic about the Islamist elements within the opposition that what the reality is on the ground,” Mr. Zelin said. “Even though they would probably say they are moderate Islamists, they’re fighting alongside extremist groups and it’s not as if there’s this clear distinction between them militarily speaking. These guys are working together in operations.”
Official U.S. intelligence community assessments of the Syrian opposition remain closely guarded.
One U.S. official told The Times that “most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.”
During a panel discussion last week at the Brookings Institution, Bruce Riedel, a former career analyst for the CIA, warned that “if we tilt the playing field in Syria against the Assad regime, inevitably, that helps al Qaeda.”
Mr. Riedel also said that claims about the level of extremists in the fight in Syria should be read with skepticism. “Anyone who tells you there are 5,000 al Qaeda fighters in Syria — your alarm bell should go off,” he said. “How do they know things like that? It’s doubtful that al Qaeda knows how many people it has in Syria today.”
Other analysts have been quick to rebut claims that extremists such as the al Qaeda-connected Jabhat al-Nusra are marginal players in Syria and that U.S. bombing will not help them.
“I’d only be in favor of these strikes if they simultaneously strike at the al-Nusra Front rebels,” Bart Bechtel, a former CIA officer in the region, told The Washington Times. “Those are the hard-line Islamists who are killing Christians. Any damage to the Assad regime is gong to benefit any opposition.”
• Rowan Scarborough and Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.