Secretary of State John Kerry’s public assertions that moderate Syrian opposition groups are growing in influence appear to be at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.
At congressional hearings this week, while making the case for President Barack Obama’s plan for limited military action in Syria, Kerry asserted that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.
“And the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
U.S. and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest that assessment is optimistic.
While the radical Islamists among the rebels may not be numerically superior to more moderate fighters, they say, Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front are better organized, armed and trained.
Kerry’s remarks represented a change in tone by the Obama administration, which for more than two years has been wary of sending U.S. arms to the rebels, citing fears they could fall into radical Islamists’ hands.
As recently as late July, at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd, estimated that there were at least 1,200 different Syrian rebel groups and that Islamic extremists, notably the Nusra Front, were well-placed to expand their influence.
“Left unchecked, I’m very concerned that the most radical elements will take over larger segments” of the opposition groups, Shedd said. He added that the conflict could drag on anywhere “from many, many months to multiple years” and that a prolonged stalemate could leave open parts of Syria to potential control by radical fighters.