Many people cocked their heads when Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress this week that the Syrian rebel opposition is increasingly moderate and secular, while the jihadist forces aligned with al-Qaeda are faltering. That seemed wrong to many people who…uh, follow the news and official statements.
Here is Kerry’s statement:
The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.
Indeed, Kerry got ahead of himself. According to Reuters:
Secretary of State John Kerry’s public assertions that moderate Syrian opposition groups are growing in influence appear to be at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.
…Kerry’s remarks represented a change in tone by the Obama administration, which for more than two years has been wary of sending U.S. arms to the rebels, citing fears they could fall into radical Islamists’ hands.
As recently as late July, at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd, estimated that there were at least 1,200 different Syrian rebel groups and that Islamic extremists, notably the Nusra Front, were well-placed to expand their influence.
“Left unchecked, I’m very concerned that the most radical elements will take over larger segments” of the opposition groups, Shedd said. He added that the conflict could drag on anywhere “from many, many months to multiple years” and that a prolonged stalemate could leave open parts of Syria to potential control by radical fighters.
U.S. and allied intelligence sources said that such assessments have not changed.
As far as I can tell, Kerry has not personally followed up on his statement. But if he does, I’m betting it may sound something like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, when he was caught lying to Congress about whether NSA collects data on millions of Americans. Clapper’s excuse: it was the “least untruthful” answer he could think of.