Monday, July 22, 2013

Al Qaeda-affiliated groups gaining strength in Syria


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

further trouble.


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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