Assessing Role Extremists Play In Syrian Opposition

Sep 6, 2013
Originally published on September 7, 2013 11:52 am



All this week, we've been following the debate in Congress, where many question the wisdom of striking Syria. Senator John McCain is a leading voice for doing more, making sure airstrikes and other measures actually help the rebels there.

McCain has downplayed concerns about extremist among the rebels. And he cited the work of Elizabeth O'Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War. O'Bagy has traveled in Syria with more moderate rebels and observed the Islamist groups, including those linked to al-Qaida. In her view, they have not taken over the fight.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY: These more extremist groups are not necessarily committed to the fight against the Syrian regime. They do not see this as a directly kind of nationalist fight for the survival of Syria but as the beginning of a larger fight to establish an Islamic caliphate. And to that degree, you see them withdrawing from active battlefronts. You see them pulling back from the frontlines and actually focusing on governance and building their authority, creating safe havens in northern Syria, where you have liberated territory. And they're actually leaving the major fighting to those more moderate forces.

MONTAGNE: So, how did these more extremist groups end up taking over where they have taken over?

O'BAGY: So, the reason that extremists were able to really kind of create a presence in the north, specifically in the liberated areas of Syria, is because they had reliable logistic networks that were moving through the north. More importantly, they were able to control the distribution of humanitarian aid. And this has been really key, because previously, up until very recently, they had gained a perception that they were the only ones to provide food, water, oil, electricity - all of the kind of basic necessities of life to the civilian population. It allowed them to really come to be seen as leaders of the community and allowed for the extremist groups to take control of a number of the governing structures that were in place.

MONTAGNE: Wouldn't efforts that hurt Assad help them?

O'BAGY: I think that if there is a limited offset strike that aims to hit at Assad but doesn't actually empower the more moderate groups, then, yes, it could very well have the unintended consequence of empowering some of the more extremist forces. But even though there are some extremist strongholds in the north, the civilian population is actively pushing back. When I was last in Aleppo and traveling around northern Syria, I was witnessing near-daily protests in a number of different towns and villages where people were pushing back against some of these extremist groups, specifically kind of the harsh lifestyle measures that they were trying to implement because these extremist groups really do need the support of the population in order to continue to operate freely. To that degree, having active protests has helped kind of mitigate some of their more extreme behavior and they've recalled some of their harsher measures that they've tried to implement.

MONTAGNE: In your view, what specific actions could the U.S. and the West take in Syria at this moment in time that would make a positive difference?

O'BAGY: First of all, I think that a strike is important, if nothing else because of the psychological impact that no reaction would have on the Syrian population as a whole. That includes regime supporters and opposition supporters. I think that there should be some sort of U.S. action to degrade the Syrian military capability while simultaneously expanding a train and assist program. That would help empower the moderate opposition both militarily but also politically.

MONTAGNE: Elizabeth O'Bagy is a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Thank you for joining us.

O'BAGY: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: And that's one of many views we've been getting of the Syrian rebels since the civil war began in that country more than two years ago.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.