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US Downplays Concerns About Al-Qaida in Syria

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As the White House pushes Congress to back a military strike in Syria, it is drawing a distinction between Islamist extremists and “moderate,” secular forces among the opposition, insisting it can aid the latter without benefiting the former.

WASHINGTON, September 4 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) – As the White House pushes Congress to back a military strike in Syria, it is drawing a distinction between Islamist extremists and “moderate,” secular forces among the opposition, insisting it can aid the latter without benefiting the former.

In testimony before a Senate panel on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry denied that al-Qaida and affiliated Islamist forces had taken full control of the Syrian opposition, saying the number of fighters under the extremist al-Nusra Front linked to al-Qaida were “actually lower” today than in the past.

Instead, Kerry said, the Syrian opposition as a whole “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some … democratic process.”

“They reached out and expanded significantly their base within Syria,” Kerry went on, referring to what US officials have frequently termed the “vetted, moderate” component of the Syrian opposition. “They’ve built up a much more competent leadership.”

Critics in the United States and abroad, notably in Russia, have underscored the presence of al-Qaida and other Islamist forces among the Syrian opposition and have cited this as one of several basic arguments against US military action directed at the regime of President Bashar Assad.

But Kerry and other top officials in the administration of President Barack Obama have asserted that action targeting Assad’s regime – blamed by Washington for an apparent chemical weapons attack last month – is required and have sought to attenuate fears that such a move would strengthen al-Qaida.

An alleged chemical attack on August 21 killed more than 1,400 people including hundreds of children, according to a US intelligence report.

Efforts by Kerry and other US officials to minimize the role of Islamist extremists in the Syrian opposition have been derided by critics including Russian President Vladimir Putin who on Wednesday stated bluntly that Kerry had “lied” about the presence of al-Qaida in Syria.

Experts on Syria are divided on the question, but some say that strikes like those sought by Obama – “limited” in nature with “no boots on the ground” of US troops in Syria – could telegraph backing for secular opposition forces there that would undermine religious extremists.

The link between a military strike on select regime targets and the resulting strengthening of al-Qaida in Syria is “at best, dubious,” said Steven Heydemann, a special advisor on Middle East Initiatives at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), a nonpartisan institution funded by Congress to support US efforts to manage international conflict without violence.

“Militant Islamist armed groups in Syria have benefitted from the perception that the West does not care about what happens in Syria and does not support the opposition. A shift in US policy in which limited strikes are combined with more active support for the moderate opposition is a threat to al-Qaida’s power,” Heydemann wrote in a question-and-answer statement.

However other experts, including prominent US politicians, are less certain.

“We should be focused on defending the United States of America. That’s why young men and women sign up to join the military. Not to, as you know, serve as al-Qaida’s air force,” the ultra-conservative Breitbart News internet website quoted Senator Ted Cruz, an influential Republican, as saying this week.

“I’ll give you one of the simplest principles of foreign policy that we ought to be following: Don’t give weapons to people who hate you. Don’t give weapons to people who want to kill you," Cruz said.

That view was echoed by other experts who said any outside military action against the Assad regime would inevitably bolster his opponents, including Islamist extremists.

“The more the regime is weakened, the more the opposition gains,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and Middle East policy expert at Brookings, a Washington-based think tank.

“Since the opposition includes a strong and growing al-Qaida component, such an approach could mean inadvertently helping that organization,” Riedel said in an article published in Al-Monitor, a website that covers news about the Middle East.

In his testimony on Tuesday, Kerry estimated the overall numbers of Syrian opposition fighters at 80,000 to 100,000, but said recent figures show the percentage of those aligned with al-Qaida is “lower” than previous estimated.

“Extremists groups benefit from the lack of international action, while moderate groups are marginalized,” said a representative from the US-based National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which supports the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting in Syria.

“The majority of Syrians are moderates and the majority of FSA fighters are moderates as well. Extremism grows when desperation flourishes and so it's time to end the crisis in Syria,” the representative, who asked not to be named, said in a statement sent by email to RIA Novosti.

Riedel said the United States will have to address al-Qaida’s presence in Syria one way or the other.

“Whatever policy Congress endorses, it should include a robust effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Syria before it becomes an even greater threat to US interests,” he said.

 

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