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Who are Syria's rebels?

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Hussein Malla/AP/File

(Read caption) Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions as they observe the Syrian army forces base of Wadi al-Deif, at the front line of Maarat al-Numan town, in Idlib province, Syria, on February 26, 2013.

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How many of Syria's rebels have a world view that views the United States as a global scourge and are inspired by ideologies akin to those espoused by Al Qaeda? Lots. How many is "lots"? Well, that's uncertain, depends on definitions, and is the subject of hot debate.

Consider a headline yesterday from The Telegraph of the UK. "Syria: nearly half rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, says IHS Jane's report."

Pretty scary sounding, no? But in fact, based on the work of the Jane's analyst Charles Lister, at least as it's cited in the report, the headline could have easily been: "Only 10 percent of Syria rebels aligned with Al Qaeda" or "A majority of Syria rebels not fighting for Islamist causes."

The report cites a Jane's study estimating there are roughly 100,000 rebel fighters in Syria, that about 10,000 are Al Qaeda-style jihadis – meaning that they're interested in a broader war beyond Syria's borders, ultimately targeting the West – and that about 30,000 are "hardline Islamists." That latter term means they favor a strict version of Islamic law for Syria and are generally unfriendly to US and other Western interests in the region, but want to confine their struggle to their own country.

Ten percent of the men under arms in Syria's rebellion being aligned with Al Qaeda is something to worry about, of course. But that was probably inevitable, and doesn't necessarily mean that a rebel victory destines the country for becoming a launching pad for Al Qaeda attacks on foreign interests.

Consider Libya. In the Libyan war against Qaddafi in 2011, aided by the US and other NATO powers, Islamist fighters with experience in Afghanistan were frequently in the front lines, and far more of the men fighting alongside them said they were fighting to bring Islamic law to their country, but that they'd put their weapons down once the war at home was over. Islamist militias have remained a threat to Libya's stability since – the attack on the US consulate-cum-CIA operation in Benghazi a year ago is evidence of that. But there's been no sign that Libya is approaching anything like a base of support for attacking US interests.

Or consider Iraq, where Al Qaeda grabbed the gilt-edged opportunity presented by the US-led invasion with both hands, and established a strong presence in the country during the height of that war. While many Iraqis were "radicalized" during that period, and carried out horrific attacks on both Iraqi civilians and US and Iraqi troops in the country, Iraq has likewise not emerged as a place from which major threats to the US have emanated (the current hotbed for that danger appears to be Yemen.)

But Mr. Lister, writing in Foreign Policy a few weeks ago, says Al Qaeda style fighters in Syria are widespread, and among the best fighters in the ranks of the rebellion.

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In the last one-and-a-half years, jihadists have established a concrete foothold in the heart of the Middle East. Jabhat al-Nusra maintains an operational presence in 11 of Syria's 13 governorates and the roughly four-month-old Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – an extension of Al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) front group, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – is catching up fast.

This is not to mention at least 10 other decidedly jihadist groups operating on a more localized level across the country. Clearly, this remarkable expansion in jihadist territorial spread and influence is of long-term concern to the West, and it is for this reason that jihadists are so concerned...

While the focus today remains on the current conflict in Syria and on how it will one day end, if Assad does eventually fall, a second battle will inevitably commence: one that will decide who, if anyone, takes the reins of power in Syria. Within such a situation, jihadists will very much be involved.

Is Lister right? I know he's highly respected and in my experience always careful in his research and conclusions. But the most important thing to take away from his work, and the way it was spun by The Telegraph, is that information is one thing – analysis of what it all means is something else. Neither doomsday conclusions (which he is careful not to draw) or happy-clappy claims that "good rebels" are in the lead and in control are possible.

In the US, until recently, a puppies and rainbows view of the Syrian rebellion was in vogue. A few weeks ago, 26-year-old researcher Elizabeth O'Bagy at the hawkish Institute for the Study of War think tank in DC had a star turn, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Republican Sen. John McCain brandishing an Aug. 30 op-ed she wrote for The Wall Street Journal that asserted "The conventional wisdom – that jihadists are running the rebellion – is not what I've witnessed on the ground."

In the piece she went on to assert: "Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces, and they have recently been empowered by the influx of arms and money from Saudi Arabia and other allied countries, such as Jordan and France."

Was Ms. O'Bagy right? It's hard to say. That word "moderate" is a slippery one that is rarely well-defined. In the war I'm most familiar with first hand, Iraq, Saudi money flowed to "moderates" bent on killing US forces and their allies during the occupation. The majority of "actual" fighting forces? While this was seized upon by both Sen. McCain and Secretary Kerry as evidence that there was little to worry about in arming Syria's rebels, it's unproven and contradicted by many other assessments of the state of rebel forces in Syria.

O'Bagy's op-ed attracted a lot of attention after McCain read from it at a Senate hearing on attacking Syria. First it was pointed out that the Wall Street Journal failed to mention that in addition to working for the Institute for the Study of War, she was also employed by the Syria Emergency Task Force (SETF), a group that supports Syria's rebellion and has been lobbying the US government for greater US support. Failure to mention her conflict of interest was waived off as a mere oversight. Then some reporters started doing a little digging and found that Ms. O'Bagy had not only lied about obtaining a PhD from Georgetown, she'd also lied about ever being in a Phd program at the university.

Those lies led to her being fired by ISW and SETF. But what's most troubling is that despite the history of lies fed to the US government by exiles seeking US involvement in foreign wars (Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress' role in stovepiping claims of Iraqi WMD programs ahead of the 2003 invasion of that country should be top of mind) she was listened to in the first place.

In Washington circles her work with SETF was known – and she herself relied on one particular wing of Syria's complex rebellion, a wing that she relied on to arrange her travel and meetings inside Syria, to arrive at her conclusions. The SETF's leadership is largely composed of Syrian exiles, much as the Iraqi National Congress's leadership was composed of Iraqi exiles. Should such people be taken at their word when they seek US assistance?

Machiavelli's 550-year-old advice to rulers comes to mind. "How dangerous a thing it is to believe those who have been driven from their native city, for such men as those have to be dealt with every day by those in authority," he wrote in his Discourses on Livy. "And as for their vain promises and hopes, their burning desire to return home is so great that they naturally believe many things that are false, and to these they skillfully add many more, so that between what they believe and what they say they believe, they fill you with so much hope that, should you base a decision on this either you incur useless expense or you undertake an enterprise that leads you to ruin."

So who are Syria's rebels? They're a diverse group, all fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's repressive and violent regime. If they win, they will then duke it out among themselves to decide what kind of order will emerge in Syria. Who will win the war after the war? Only time will tell – and the decisions of foreign powers will play a hand in that.


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