US: Al-Qaeda gaining foothold in Syria

2012-08-11 08:00
(File, AFP)

(File, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

kalahari.com

Washington - Al-Qaeda has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria and now is building a network of well-organised cells, according to US intelligence officials, who fear the terrorists could be on the verge of establishing an Iraq-like foothold that would be hard to defeat if rebels eventually oust President Bashar Assad.

At least a couple of hundred al-Qaeda-linked militants are already operating in Syria, and their ranks are growing as foreign fighters stream into the Arab country daily, current and former US intelligence officials say.

The units are spreading from city to city, with veterans of the Iraq insurgency employing their expertise in bomb-building to carry out more than two dozen attacks so far.

Others are using their experience in co-ordinating small units of fighters in Afghanistan to win new followers.

In Syria on Friday, rebel commanders appealed anew for new and better weapons from abroad, complaining that Assad's forces have them badly outgunned from the air and on the ground.

In fact, rebel leaders say that with so little aid coming to them from the US and other nations, they are slowly losing the battle for influence against hardline militants.

They say their fighters are sometimes siding with extremists who are better funded and armed so they can fight the far stronger Syrian army.

It all could point to a widening danger posed by extremists who have joined rebels fighting the Assad government.

Although the extremists are ostensibly on the same side as Washington by opposing Assad, US officials fear their presence could fundamentally reshape what began as a protest movement for reform composed of largely moderate or secular Syrians.

The opposition expanded into a civil war pitting Assad's four-decade dictatorship against a movement promising a new, democratic future for the country.

The intelligence also offers some explanation for the Obama administration's reluctance to offer military aid to the anti-Assad insurgency, which Washington says it is still trying to better understand.

US officials have repeatedly rejected providing any lethal assistance to the conflict that has killed at least 19 000 people over the past 17 months.

With the US weighing its options, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will discuss the situation with top Turkish officials and Syrian opposition activists in Istanbul on Saturday.

Officials described the intelligence on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss confidential internal talks among intelligence and administration officials

Underscoring the administration's desire to step up efforts against the Assad government without providing weapons, the US set largely symbolic sanctions on Friday on Syria's state-run oil company and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

It accused Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group of helping prop up Assad.

Neither action will mean much immediately. Americans have been banned from doing business with Hezbollah since the US declared it a foreign terrorist organisation in the 1990s.

Decades of US sanctions against Syria have hampered energy trade between the two countries, and President Barack Obama blacklisted any new imports a year ago.

Running low on guns

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels were running low on ammunition and guns Friday and appealed for international help as government forces tried to consolidate their control over Aleppo, the country's largest city and a deadly battleground in recent weeks.

"The warplanes and helicopters are killing us, they're up there in the sky 15 hours a day," said Mohammad al-Hassan, an activist in Aleppo's main rebel stronghold of Salaheddine.

"I don't know how long this situation can be sustained."

As for a possible diplomatic solution, former Algerian foreign affairs minister and longtime UN official Lakhdar Brahimi emerged as a candidate to replace Kofi Annan as peace envoy to Syria. Annan announced his resignation last week, ending a six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary cease-fire as the country descended into civil war.

A fresh wave of civilians was streaming across the border into neighboring Turkey. Officials there said more than 1 500 Syrians had arrived over the previous 24 hours, increasing the number of refugees in Turkey to about 51 500.

In Syria, Assad, a member of the country's Alawite minority, has blamed the uprising against him on Sunni terrorists and the West.

American officials say the claims are only an excuse for brutal tactics of repression as part of a desperate attempt to hold onto power. But they concede that the extremist presence in Syria is growing.

US officials say the number of al-Qaeda operatives remains small in the context of the larger anti-government insurgency, with perhaps only 200 or so who are active. But ranks are growing, the officials said.

Once operating as disparate, disconnected units, the al-Qaeda cells are now communicating and sometimes cooperating on missions, with a command-and-control structure evolving to match more sophisticated operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, US officials said.

The co-ordination is sometimes as good as that of Syria's mainstream rebels.

"There is a larger group of foreign fighters... who are either in or headed to Syria," the state department's counterterrorism coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, told reporters recently.

He said Syrian opposition groups "assured us that they are being vigilant and want nothing to do with al-Qaeda or with violent extremists."

Still, the administration clearly has reservations. Speaking earlier this week, Clinton stressed a need for Syrians to avoid sectarian warfare when the Assad government falls, as the US insists will happen.

"Those who are attempting to exploit the misery of the Syrian people, either by sending in proxies or sending in terrorist fighters, must recognize that that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people," she said.

But the Brookings Institute's Bruce Riedel said such U.S. pronouncements are having limited effect.

"Clinton is going to tell them 'clean up your act or we can't help you,'" said Riedel, a former adviser to the Obama White House. "The rebels are saying, 'You aren't helping us anyway.'"

The administration says it is providing $25m in nonlethal aid, primarily communications, to the Syrian opposition.

Weapons and money

The rebels have gotten their weapons through army defectors, looted government depots, the black market and the assistance of Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The US fears weapons ending up in extremists' hands.

But Syrian rebel commanders complain that their fighters are attracted to join up with better-armed extremists.

The extremists "come with weapons and money", said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Their weapons include mortars, anti-tank weapons and rocket propelled grenades, many left over from old Iraqi army stockpiles, he said.

They have cash thanks to donations from hardline sympathisers throughout the region who see Assad's crackdown as an attack on Syria's Sunni majority.

The extremist influence in Syria is debated, however, within the US government. Some deem it minimal or ad hoc, and one official insisted there is no sign al-Qaida is "influencing command-level decisions" by rebel forces.

Rand analyst Seth Jones said the presence of extremists was small but growing. He said the US should consider using its forces or getting the rebels or a regional proxy to attack the al-Qaeda units.

"There has been talk that some operatives in Pakistan are saying, 'Why don't we see if we can make it to Syria,'" he said. "That's where the fight is."

If they win local loyalty by fighting alongside Syrian rebels, they will be hard to eliminate no matter how Syria's future pans out, said former CIA analyst Riedel.

"Look at Iraq, where we decimated them time and again," Riedel said. "They're still there."

- SAPA

Read more on:    hezbollah  |  al-qaeda  |  bashar assad  |  us  |  syria  |  uprisings  |  syria conflict  |  security
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
36 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
 

We will give you police - Zille

A total of 250 000 police on the streets is one of the election promises Helen Zille made during an anti-drugs and gangsterism march in Manenberg, Cape Town.

 
 

Latest elections multimedia

Why Jack Parow wants you to vote on 7 May
The ad the SABC doesn't want to air
Elections 2014 in one cartoon
This year's election posters
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Thursday Sir Lowry's Pass - 05:35 AM
    Road name: Old Sir Lowrys Pass Road
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Bezweni Road
  • Thursday Cape Town - 05:35 AM
    Road name: Buitengracht Street
    TRAFFIC LIGHTS not working at Waterkant Street
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Escape winter, head to Mauritius

Escape winter by spending 7 nights in Mauritius' tropical bliss from R13 215 per person sharing. Includes return flights, airport transfers and accommodation. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Get many eggs in one basket!

Gaming bundles: 2 Super Hits games for R99, 3 Disney games for R99 and more + exclusive accessory bundles only available on kalahari.com. While stocks last. Shop now!

25% off bestselling books!

The Real Meal Revolution by Tim Noakes, Jeffrey Archer’s Be Careful What You Wish for, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frank and many more titles. Shop now!

Up to 25% off electronics

Buy top electronics and save up to 25%. Such as kalahari.com’s 1# selling product the gobii eReader, Patriot X Porter flash drive, Asus Nexus 7” 3G tablet, Samsung Galaxy SIII, Lenovo G580 Notebook and many more. Shop now!

DStv HD PVR Decoder now R949

The DStv HD PVR Decoder has further revolutionised the television experience with lifelike viewing, sharper images, more vibrant colours and precision picture quality. Now R949, save R550. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 30% off appliances & homeware

Save up to 30% on appliances and homeware this Easter! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now.

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Samsung Galaxy Y

The Samsung Y (Young) is tiny but powerful with Android...

From R1499.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

Self-indulgence may be strong today. You may want to enjoy yourself to the fullest and share it with those that make you feel...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.