As the United States are on the verge of launching a punitive expedition against Syria, fears abound among lawmakers in Washington that strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad might give radical Islamists in his country the upper hand. A Syria expert who traveled there several times to meet with opposition fighters believes that is a misconception.
Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, told Fox News last week that most rebels in Syria are still “fighting for the core principles that Americans believe in.” She added, “The perception that these extremists are all flocking to the frontlines and participating in the battles is also incorrect.”
Some of the congressmen and senators whom President Barack Obama has asked to approve a military operation raised such concerns this week while hearing testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry who, like O’Bagy, insisted there are enough moderates in the opposition to ensure that American action will not enable the jihadists to take power and establish a religious state in Syria.
The president called for intervention after opposition activists in Syria accused the regime two weeks ago of gassing hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus. The use of chemical weapons crossed a “red line” Obama laid out a year ago.
While the civil war in Syria seems now to break down along sectarian lines, with the majority Sunni population rebelling against Assad’s minority Alawite regime, O’Bagy reported in The Wall Street Journal last week that many Free Syrian Army rebels in the south still see the conflict as a struggle against an authoritarian regime. “I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups,” she wrote. “And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.”
The Islamists in the north, who care less about toppling Assad than controlling territory for their own purposes, have been able to profit from their proximity to the Turkish border — “which has meant that they’ve been better resourced and better equipped than the more moderate forces,” according to O’Bagy. But she told Fox News that neighboring Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, which has a strategic interest in hastening the demise of the only Arab ally of its nemesis Iran, are also “actively looking to empower the opposition” and “have mostly been focusing on those southern networks and are pushing supplies and support through the south.”
O’Bagy was fired from the Institute for the Study of War after this article was published because she apparently fabricated her academic credentials.