Official: Al Qaeda-affiliated groups gaining strength in Syria
By Elise Labott, reporting from Aspen, Colorado
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces
surrounding the Aspen Security Forum. which took place from July 17 to 20 in
Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance was a media sponsor of the event.
Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are gaining strength in Syria, giving an edge to
extremists in the country, a top military intelligence official said
David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the
Aspen Security Forum that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which
has publicly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, have been the most successful
in operations against troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
"It is very clear over the last two years they have grown in size, grown in
capability and ruthlessly grown in effectiveness. Their ability to take the
fight to the regime and Hezbollah in a very direct way has been, among those
groups, the most effective," he said.
Left unchecked, he said, more radical elements of the opposition would have
a greater role, eclipsing moderates in a post-Assad Syria. "They will not go
home when it is over," Shedd said. "They will fight for that space. They are
there for the long haul."
Shedd said at least 1,200 rebel factions have been identified in Syria. The
U.S. ability to distinguish "good guys" from "bad guys" inside Syria was
limited, but it was critical to do so in order to determine which groups to
support, he said.
Shedd said that the core al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan is providing
"spiritual direction" to its affiliates in Syria and "has been far more
active publicly with the leadership" of those groups. "There is a flow of
fighters into Syria that come from that side of the world," he said.
Shedd said one option could see al-Assad relocating to the largely Alawite
area along the Northern coast, creating an enclave and leaving opposition
groups fighting to gain control of Syrian territory.
He voiced concern about the Syrian civil war spilling over into neighboring
Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, where he predicted the government there could fall
in a post-Assad Syria.
Fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq, Shedd said, are also getting valuable
battlefield experience in Syria and could return home to Iraq to create
On Afghanistan, Shedd cautioned against leaving no U.S. troops in
Afghanistan after 2014, warning the capacity of the Afghan army and police,
while improved over the past several years, remains fragile.
Senior U.S. officials have said President Barack Obama was considering a
withdrawal to the "zero option," leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan
beyond the planned deadline of 2014.
"I'm very concerned that if it were to go to zero, there would be a much
greater fallback to the old ways and challenges with the ANSF (Afghan
National Security Forces)," Shedd said.
He said the Afghan forces still need training on gathering intelligence and
implementing it on the battlefield, calling the bilateral security agreement
for the United States to train and equip the Afghan forces being negotiated
between the two countries "critical."
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