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US Intel Community Sour on Syria Outlook

Chiefs Also Concerned Over al-Qaida's Growing Strength

Feb. 4, 2014 - 06:22PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
Civilians react following a reported airstrike Saturday on the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — The heads of the US intelligence world offered a measured look at the worldwide threat landscape during a hearing Tuesday before a House intelligence panel, while offering specific warnings and concerns about Syria.

James Clapper, director of national intelligence, testified that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than when it signed an agreement last year to get rid of its chemical weapon stocks.

“The prospects are right now that he is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been,” the intel chief said.

If Assad holds on to power and “in the absence of some kind of a diplomatic agreement ensuing from Geneva … I foresee kind of more of the same, sort of a perpetual state of a stalemate where neither the regime nor the opposition can prevail,” he added.

With little movement in discussions between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement Tuesday decrying the regime’s use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” against civilian targets.

The recent bombings of the city of Aleppo, which killed dozens of civilians, “is the latest barbaric act of a regime that has committed organized, wholesale torture, used chemical weapons, and is starving whole communities by blocking delivery of food to Syrian civilians in urgent need,” Kerry wrote.

Kerry said the regime has “turned its country into a super magnet for terror. Given this horrific legacy, the Syrian people would never accept as legitimate a government including Assad.”

But while Assad remains entrenched in power, the factions fighting against his government are fragmenting. The two primary al-Qaida-aligned Islamist groups — Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) — have been fighting one another for weeks, increasing the humanitarian crisis that has displaced millions of Syrian civilians.

This past week, the “core” al-Qaida led by Ayman al-Zawahiri denounced ISIL in a public statement, saying the radical group “is not a branch of the al-Qaida group,” and that the Pakistan-based core of the terrorist group started by Osama bin Laden “does not have an organizational relationship” with ISIL.

Still, CIA Director John Brennan testified that the United States remains concerned by the strength of both groups and the thousands of foreign fighters they have drawn into the struggle in Syria.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaida organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” Brennan said.

The spy chief added that training camps inside Iraq and Syria “are used by al-Qaida to develop capabilities that are applicable both in the theater as well as beyond.”

The subject of Edward Snowden, the contractor with the US National Security Agency who has leaked many of its secrets, also received attention during the hearing. Snowden fled to Moscow last year.

The House panel was concerned that Snowden has fallen under the control of the Russian intelligence service, something the US intelligence community has been unable publicly to confirm or deny.

“There is the possibility that he is under that influence,” said the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s director, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn

US officials have estimated that Snowden downloaded about 1.7 million documents during his time as a government contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton. Not all of those documents have been released yet, leaving US officials guessing what will come next, and unsure who has access to all of the material.

“Everything that he touched, we assume that he took — stole,” Flynn said.

Clapper added that most of the information scooped up by Snowden “bears on many other topics than telephone metadata,” which has received the most attention, and that “we will be accounting for this for months, maybe years ahead.” ■


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