WASHINGTON — Extremist groups make up between 15 percent and 25 percent of the rebels fighting Syrian leader Bashar Assad, but moderate forces are growing stronger as a result of support from regional allies, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress on Wednesday.
“I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys,” Kerry said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “That’s not true.”
Kerry’s comments suggest the administration may be toning down some of its reservations about the reliability of opposition forces as allies as they embark on an effort to support and arm rebel groups. Kerry’s testimony was part of President Obama’s lobbying effort to get a congressional resolution for a limited strike to deter Assad from using chemical weapons.
By contrast, arming the rebels is part of a broader strategy aimed at tipping the balance on the battlefield and leading to Assad’s removal from power.
But increasingly the White House’s broader efforts to support and arm moderate Syrian rebels, which is not part of the resolution, is coming under scrutiny as Kerry and other administration officials push for passage of a resolution.
At issue now is whether the administration waited too long to offer support to rebels fighting Assad, allowing al-Qaida-affiliated fighters and other extremists to gather strength on the battlefield, turning a popular revolt into a civil war among many rival groups.
The White House had rejected earlier plans to arm the rebels, which were proposed in the early days of the war before significant numbers of extremist fighters began joining the fight and transforming the nature of the opposition.
“It needed to be done and it needed to be done fast or the terrorists were going to take advantage of the situation,” said a former defense official involved in the discussions but who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely about the talks.
But in June, the White House reversed course and said it would expand support for moderate rebels to include providing weapons. Rebel leaders have said they have yet to see any of the arms, drawing criticism from lawmakers who want to see the United States assume a larger role in Syria.
“I am still totally dismayed at the lack of support we are giving to the vetted moderate opposition,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Last year, the White House rejected a plan that was backed by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then-secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Supporters of the plan argued it needed to be executed quickly while the rebels had momentum and before extremists could gain influence, the former defense official said.
The discussions centered around using regional Arab countries to vet rebel groups, the official said, and then have U.S. forces help train them in individual and small-unit tactics.
Since then, the war has become more of a standoff, as Assad’s military has blunted rebel advances in parts of the country and fighting has grown more sectarian, complicating efforts to support rebels.
Supporting the rebels can still work if there is a robust plan that focuses strictly on moderate groups that have been vetted by regional allies, analysts say. It is not too late to identify and help the moderates, they say.
Finding moderate groups is aided by the fact that the various rebels groups are somewhat divided on the battlefield, said Fred Kagan, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised top commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The al-Qaida-affiliated groups have pulled away from the Syrian capital of Damascus and are concentrated on trying to set up provisional governments in central and eastern Syria, Kagan said.
For example, the Aug. 21 nerve agent attack was conducted in suburbs around Damascus suburbs where moderate rebel factions were operating.
Even though U.S. military aid may not have reached the rebels yet, regional Arab countries who oppose Assad have been supporting rebel groups.
Kerry said there are between 70,000 and 100,000 opposition forces and that support from countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, are helping them grow stronger.
“Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys,” Kerry said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that sorting out rebel groups is challenging. “This is an imperfect situation,” Hagel said. “There are no good options here.”