Concerns that U.S. military intervention in Syria would prop up extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda were scoffed at Thursday by leaders of Syria’s opponents to dictator Bashar Assad, though analysts warn Islamic extremists are growing.
“The American strikes are not to destroy the rebels, it is to destroy the regime,” said Hozan Ibrahim, part of the opposition movement that includes the Free Syrian Army.
“Aside from some individual cases, the rebels didn’t commit any massacres. And this is not definitely not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan,” he said. “There aren’t that many extremist groups – yet.”
“Yet” is the point, analysts say. The longer the conflict drags on, the greater the chance that extremist groups expand in number and influence, said Jane Kinninmont, an analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
“There are al-Qaeda elements active in Syria, although they weren’t there at the beginning,” Kinninmont said.
President Obama’s administration insists that the vast majority of rebels in Syria are Sunni Muslims seeking to end a tyranny, not impose Islamic law. But it admits that al-Qaeda loyalists who would do such things are operating in Syria.