US: Al-Qaeda gaining foothold in Syria

2012-08-11 08:00

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."

  • Justin.D.Glenn - 2012-08-11 08:29

    Typical US if they cannot get their way, they will turn round and claim that another force is there so even bigger reason for them to go in.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 16:39

      By all accounts Jihadists are in Syria in greater numbers now.

  • charlesdumbwin.dumbwin - 2012-08-11 08:39

    Yay! Now the Yanks have a reason to get involved there.

  • khotso.morekure - 2012-08-11 08:54

    Seriously Obama &, AGAIN….come on now!!! Surely the US & its western allies can come up with a better reason to justify their inevitable Syrian invasion and regime change…..??? Feels like history just keeps repeating itself…while the rest of the world stands by, watching US led agendas prevail and yet we do/ say nothing whilst innocent lives are lost because debt tied countries (US & EUROPE) are trying to ignite their economies and gain geographical positioning. (Lemme take a wild guess – IRAN is next???)

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 16:49

      Again, by all accounts Jihadists are more present in Syria now. Innocent lives are lost because debt-tied countries are trying to ignite their economies and gain geographical positioning? There's no connection here. You obviously missed how the Arab Spring started, turned nightmare by the madman Gaddafi and the self-styled bloody surgeon of Syria. A Tunisian street-trader immolated himself out of sheer frustration at the idea of living just one more day being oppressed by the then unelected dictator of the country. Regarding Iran, this is one of the most oppressive, if not the most oppressive, and dishonest regimes in the world. I recommend educating yourself about what it does. You're uninformed, and it shows.

  • hudayfah.newman - 2012-08-11 09:02

    USA and ANC has one thing in common. Always has someone to blame.

  • predrag.raos.3 - 2012-08-11 09:18

    I am delighted with the idea of pressing Syrian rebels to attack their most valuable assets (al-Quaeda) in the middle of the (losing) war, and probably Turkey to arm Kurds to fight Assad. Clinton is obviously not up to this job. Try Monica?

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 16:50

      What convoluted nonsense.

      J.Stephen.Whiteley - 2012-08-11 22:01

      I think his point is that every fifeten years the US have a predeliction for stage-setting no-win wars. If I were a US citizen of military call-up age, I would refuse to serve

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 22:51

      Please name those wars.

  • fidel.mgoqi - 2012-08-11 10:10

    Convenient that the US can simply move its self-made Al-Qaeda pawn whenever and wherever it needs to have a presence. And this, like the question of motivation, is important in assessing how the US might behave, and what course of action it might take.

      AnthonyfromAfrica - 2012-08-11 11:14

      ""This must be a welcome relief to the citizen of this neighbourhood who have endured lawlessness by foreign armed militias"" Fidel The crap you talk is just mind boggling !! The ,armed, opposition to this assad terrorist are mainly Syrians, defected from assad's terrorist army, and who brought along Syrian army , Russian made, rifles. And besides , some other terrorist organizations, like Al-Quaeda, and Russians and Iranians, there are few ,armed, foreigners in Syria. You just make this BS up, so you can spew out some silly childish anti Western CRAP, your specialty !! Told you many times , that your thoughts are only supported by not even 5 % of Africans. But now that you continue insulting Nelson Mandela, and in fact the whole of the ANC leadership, your thoughts are not shared by more than ONE PERCENT of Africans. WHAT AN INSULT TO THE ONES WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES TO FREE SA OF TYRANNY: ""Democracy is nothing more than a noisy circus every 4 or 5 years"" You are nothing more than a bullsh.tter !!!!

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-08-11 12:01

      You are truly insufferable! You are the most uninformed ranter on these pages who offers nothing other than ignorant hot air. Again, no contribution to the thread, other than bitching and moaning. Have you no opinion about this "development".

      gerhard.kress.3 - 2012-08-11 12:24

      Just another of Mgoqi's conspiracy theories.

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-08-11 12:48

      People lie, and so do governments. What are secret government agencies if not conspiracies?

      AnthonyfromAfrica - 2012-08-11 14:48

      Fidel, Whatever !!! I am just pointing out, that you are a loner, and ALL you do is entertain some of your buddies on these comment sites. To call Al-Qaeda a ""US self made pawn"" , you ridicule yourself, and just proofs that ALL that 'knowledge about history' is just a lot of hot air. You sound more and more like as 16 year old, who is anti US, because he seen a few badly made movies. It is all sooo unbekievable inmature!!

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 16:56

      Fidel blinds himself with an obsessive and highly immature anti-US core belief. Pretty much anything involving the US is negative. There's no real substance to his perspective. It's only "the US is evil". He also believes Nelson Mandela is an Uncle Tom, a phony, a Western lackey. This is on the US/Mandela thread right now. Imagine that, Nelson Mandela, one of the most revered leaders in the world, is a phony, a lackey of the West, an Uncle Tom. Such is Fidel's distorted world view.

      AnthonyfromAfrica - 2012-08-11 18:33

      Patrick, A dialoque with a radical is IMPOSSIBLE. They entertain other radicals, like yourself. That's all !!

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 18:47

      Patrick, do you agree with Fidel that Nelson Mandela is a phony, a lackey of the West, and Uncle Tom?

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-08-11 18:50

      @Anthony This is not a popularity contest or a school play ground. And get some new arguments please. You are beginning to sound like a sratched CD, just like fred.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 20:15

      Many people have engaged with Fidel. All have come to the same conclusion: there's nothing more to his thought-process than the West is evil. Patrick Edwards the same.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 20:16

      All the while they type on their Western invented computers, drive their Western invented cars, fly in their Western invented planes, switch on their Western invented lights, talk on their Western invented phones, etc.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 20:18

      And above all, express themselves freely in Western invented democracies, which unfortunately the people they are unwittingly supporting, the brutal unelected dictators and Jihadists, do not allow their fellow Muslims to do.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 21:12

      As I was saying, Patrick Edwards holds an obsessive anti-West core belief, even a paranoia.

  • imam.madi.129 - 2012-08-11 12:08

    The Americans just refuse to learn! Their obsession with war and regime change for the benefit of Israel is nothing less of state terrorism. They are not different from al Qa'ida which they created. No western citizen would allow armed gangs hiding behind women n children, to terrorise them and they want us to accept that? Why the average arabs and muslims like me are not with the rebels if the rebels represent the goodness of freedom? We don't want western interference, even if its packaged as NATO baked freedom.

      gerhard.kress.3 - 2012-08-11 12:25

      Hadjis don't have balls.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 17:02

      Unfortunately Imam, its you who is refusing to learn. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims are being slaughtered and maimed by Jihadists and unelected dictators right under your nose. Like Fidel you blind yourself with a highly immature anti-US core belief which leads you to unwittingly support the killing and maiming of your fellow Muslims. Tragic and stupid, no offense.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 17:25

      Regarding the US creating Al-Quaida, this is another delusional and uninformed belief that you're choosing to hold. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1980's as part of its ongoing plans to impose Soviet Communism on the rest world. The US assisted Afghan fighters to repel the Soviets and was successful in doing so. Most of the Afghans were from the Northern Front, unconnected to the Taliban and Jihadists. Some Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, who had been ejected from Saudi Arabia because of his ultra-extreme views, were however among those assisted by the US. Osama Bin Laden then went on to form Al-Quaida several years later. The US had long left Afghanistan. Bin Laden declared war on the West because Saudi Arabia had allowed Nato to use its bases to repel Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. That was in 1992. For years the US did virtually nothing, allowing Al-Quaida to get stronger, even after being directly attacked several times, such as in the first World Trade Center bombing, and the bombing of the US Cole. Al-Quaida carried out suicide attacks in various other parts of the world, including Africa. 9/11 happened and the US and much of the world was then spurred into action. To suggest the US created Al-Quaida is like saying Soweto High School is responsible when one of its chemistry students plants a home-made bomb at a shopping mall.

  • don.mug.3 - 2012-08-11 14:32


  • don.mug.3 - 2012-08-11 14:57

    Assad must go,China

  • imam.madi.129 - 2012-08-11 15:27

    I think as long as the fighting takes place in foreign Arab lands the west dosn't care. They will wake up when their cities burn from the fire their terrorist allies in Syria will start once they are back in London, Paris, New York and Berlin. They are dying like flies in Afghanistan but still refuse to just back off and mind their own business. If you own a python as a pat and try feeding it veggies it will go after your dogs and kids, that's what terrorists do, they will go after their masters as they do after they have succeeded in achieving their short term goals. Long term goal for terrorists is mass murder in the west and now let the west give them experience in Libya and Syria, as if Iraq and Afghanistan are not enough.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-11 17:29

      In the first sentence you clearly set out your self-chosen, anti-West core belief that is distorting your perspective, blinding you to what is really happening. All the while innocent Muslims, your fellow Muslims, are being slaughtered by unelected dictators and Jihadists right under your nose.

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