John Kerry has come to Capitol Hill to deliver the hard-sell on war against Bashar al-Assad, but Reuters reports that his supporting data is rather suspect. Kerry insists, as does John McCain, that the Free Syrian Army controls the opposition in Syria and that radical Islamist elements comprise only a small percentage of rebel fighting units. However, intelligence from US and European agencies put the radical Islamists near parity in numbers, and far more in control than Kerry and the Obama administration acknowledge:
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. …
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 insists that FSA’s General Salim Idriss has control, and the opposition is even holding elections for its leaders:
Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists … Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.
“There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” Kerry continued, referring to General Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Increasingly, he said, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss.
According to Foreign Policy, though — hardly a conservative mouthpiece on foreign affairs — Idriss’ grasp on the opposition is crumbling, and may have been ephemeral all along. Instead, his commanders have suddenly developed a taste for working with the elements that Kerry insists are too small to matter:
As the United States moves closer to taking military action against the Syrian government, the leadership of the mainstream armed opposition force has chosen a curious time to appear to be on the verge of unraveling. Known generically as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), this assortment of mostly secular defecting Sunni Arab officers and mostly Islamist volunteers has attempted several reorganizations. The most recent of these is now seriously threatened by a resignation threat from senior commanders. …
On August 22, four of the five front commanders threatened to resign from the SMC, promising to break “red lines” and work “with all forces fighting in Syria,” a clear reference to the war’s growing Salafist-Jihadist contingent. The statement was read by Colonel Fatih Hasun, who is the commander of the SMC’s Homs Front and the deputy chief-of-staff, that is to say, Idriss’s deputy and the most senior officer inside the country. Hasun added that rebels would no longer respect demands by outside powers that they not attempt to take over government-controlled chemical weapons sites. In addition to demanding action in response to the government’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus, Hasun also demanded better weapons and said they were tiring of the “false promises of those who call themselves Friends of Syria.”
While the resignation seemed tentative, Hasun was less equivocal about the other red line — the opposition’s Salafist-Jihadist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — both of which the United States has designated as terrorist entities linked to al Qaeda. Directly behind Hasun on the wall was an Islamic flag, with a pre-Assad Syria FSA flag draped to the side, a nod perhaps to the Salafists. Sitting to his right was a bearded cleric in Salafist garb. He directly stated, “we call upon all” FSA units to work with all others fighting the regime. Adding insult to injury, on August 25 Muhammad Tabnaja, field commander in Latakia for the Ahfad al-Faruq Brigade in Latakia, resigned citing the lack of support from the SMC.
If Idriss is in control and opposed to the radical Islamist elements, he would have acted forcefully to put down this rebellion within the rebellion. In the event, though, Idriss apparently couldn’t do anything:
Most telling is what happened when the SMC’s decision removing Akaydi was announced. Akaydi ignored it, then after brigade-level commanders within the AMC rejected the decision, he did an interview in which he mocked the SMC as made up of people “who are into travel and hotels and have no connection to what is happening on the ground.” He did clear Idriss of involvement, however, and Idriss promptly apologized to Akaydi and then traveled to Aleppo to meet with him and praise him. …
Idriss responded to Hasun’s threatened resignation by saying he “rejected” it, as if he had the power to do so.
Is the White House following the intelligence of its own agencies and that of its allies? Is it even following the public events that demonstrate the lack of effectiveness in the FSA and the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated leadership in the Syrian rebellion? Or are they just so concerned about preventing Barack Obama’s humiliation that they don’t care?
Addendum: The New York Times offers a profile of one group that illustrates the problem of choosing sides in this fight:
At first, people who know Mr. Issa said, he was a protester, and then he led fighters in small skirmishes. By last year he was running a training camp in the highlands near Turkey.
By this year, the aide said, he was gathering weapons from relatives and Arab businessmen he knew from his work as a trader and, at least once, from the Western-supported Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel forces.
(Two representatives of the military council declined to comment on the council’s military collaboration or logistical support for Mr. Issa’s group. Mr. Issa could not be reached for comment over two days this week.)
By the spring, his group had taken a resonant name: Jund al-Sham, which it shares with three international terrorist groups, and another group in Syria.
Its relationship — if any — with these other groups is not clear.
Mr. Issa’s former aide and two other men who have met or investigated him said he appears to assume identities of convenience.
But, they said, one of his tactics has been to promise to his fighters what he calls “the extermination” of Alawites — the minority Islamic sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which Mr. Issa blames for Syria’s suffering.
“The Uncle,” as Issa is known, and his group released a celebratory video last week of the execution of seven prisoners they had captured, along with The Uncle’s poem pledging revenge on all Alawites.