U.S. fears radical Islamists could take root in Syria

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Officials say Syria is now the global focal point for militants who want to wage holy war, eclipsing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen

 U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups could carve out a haven in Syria that will offer the kind of sanctuary they once enjoyed in northwestern Pakistan, current and former U.S. officials say.

Officials say a clandestine CIA program that provides rudimentary training and weapons to U.S.-backed politically moderate insurgents is unlikely to curb the growing strength of extremists among the opposition militias seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Though the fighting remains limited to Syria, U.S. intelligence officials already are looking at worst-case scenarios if the country breaks into distinct government- and rebel-controlled enclaves. The alarm grew recently when militants from Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate considered the most capable and best-armed rebel force, and its allies seized a border crossing between Syria and Jordan near the Syrian city of Dara.

“I think Syria is heading toward becoming the next FATA,” said a U.S. official regularly briefed on intelligence, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda and its allies plotted attacks against the West until U.S. drone strikes and other counter-terrorism efforts decimated their forces.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said he worries that the growing presence of Islamic militants could pose unique dangers to the West because of Syria’s “close proximity to strategic U.S. interests, ease of travel to Europe, and the availability of advanced conventional and nonconventional weapons.”

The rising threat of extremist groups in Syria is helping to drive the international effort, led by Russia and the United States, to swiftly disable or destroy Assad’s supplies of chemical warfare agents. U.S. officials say all the poison gas munitions and production facilities are in areas held by Assad’s forces, but long-term control is uncertain in a chaotic civil war.

The CIA expects to step up pressure on Syrian extremists should they turn from fighting Assad to targeting the West, officials said.

“There’s a concern that some of the insurgents, especially foreigners affiliated with Nusra and the other extremist factions, could pose a terrorist threat either from Syria or upon returning to their home countries,” said a second U.S. official who was not authorized to be identified discussing intelligence. “There’s little doubt that many of them share Al Qaeda’s global jihadist ambitions.”

U.S. officials say 100 to 500 foreign fighters arrive in Syria each month to join the radical Islamist factions of the insurgency. They have come from all over the world, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Britain and the Netherlands, as well as countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

U.S. officials say Syria has become the global focal point for militants who want to wage holy war, eclipsing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Al Nusra Front has only a few thousand guerrillas, but a second coalition of Islamist units, Ahrar al Sham, has fielded a brigade of about 10,000 that “strongly sympathizes with Al Qaeda’s world view,” the second U.S. official said. Analysts say that group’s founders were Syrian Islamist political prisoners who had been detained for years but were released by Assad’s government as part of an amnesty in 2011.

The most violent group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is small and unpopular, U.S. officials say.

Al Nusra Front sometimes cooperates with secular forces, but it also has fought against secular Kurdish rebels along the Turkish border. The Kurds have captured several Nusra leaders, and Al Nusra has taken dozens of Kurdish civilians prisoner in response, Salih Muslim Muhammad, a Kurdish leader, said in a telephone interview.

All told, Al Qaeda and its ideological allies make up as much as 35% of the Syrian rebel movement, a U.S. intelligence official said. The opposition is believed to include about 100,000 fighters in all.

The U.S. government has long been concerned about extremists in the ranks of the opposition movement, a concern that factored into the decision not to provide more direct assistance to the rebels. Advocates for a more robust intervention say the U.S. decision to hold back has weakened moderates and strengthened radicals.

Assad has long charged that the insurgency aiming to oust his government masks an effort by Islamic militants to seize control.

The latest setback for U.S. interests came Sept. 24 when 11 of the largest armed factions in Syria distanced themselves from the U.S.-backed coalition and formed an alliance dedicated to creating an Islamic state.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. ability to steer the rebel movement is limited, and probably shrinking.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for us to affect the mix,” he said. “You have a lot of money and munitions and fighters flowing to Syria, and unless we’re prepared to very dramatically ramp up our military support, it’s going to be tough to keep pace with that.”

The CIA has recently expanded its efforts to train moderate fighters and issue them light arms from secret bases in neighboring Jordan. But the weapons deliveries were delayed for months, and only a few hundred fighters reportedly are trained each month. Their impact so far has been limited at best.

“Doubling down on something that hasn’t produced results is not an answer, it’s not a policy,” said a former CIA official with Middle East experience who spoke on condition of anonymity because the training is classified.

The Obama administration is unwilling to substantially increase support for the Supreme Military Council, the U.S.-backed rebel coalition, in part because of worries that Al Nusra Front or other radical militias could seize American weapons. Whether that is already occurring on a large scale or regular basis is a matter of dispute.

“Most of the support that Arab and Western allied countries are giving ends up going to Nusra Front through certain operatives working with them, and they divide the aid among themselves,” said a military council member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.

Brig. Gen. Yahya Bittar, who heads the military council’s intelligence division, dismissed such reports as rumors. All weapons shipments, he said, “are being distributed directly to the front lines and our groups who are fighting.”

Administration officials say the U.S. goal is to provide enough support to the rebels to force a military stalemate in the civil war, which already has killed more than 100,000 people, and thus create conditions for a political solution and a post-Assad government.

The challenge for U.S. policymakers is how to force Assad to step down but not create a power vacuum that could allow groups with terrorist ties to seize power in Damascus or to take control of restive areas, especially in the north where the Islamists are strongest.

President Obama’s decision not to launch missile strikes to punish Assad for what the U.S. says was his gassing of rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 disappointed many activists. Obama chose instead to work with Russia and the United Nations Security Council to eliminate Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, a process that has now begun.

Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian opposition envoy to the United Nations, said many activists believe that “one of our strongest allies is sacrificing our aspirations for democratic change in Syria in order to get Assad’s chemical weapons.”

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