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Islamists’ show of power in Syria runs counter to U.S. claim

BEIRUT – The takeover of Syrian rebel posts by al-Qaida-linked fighters undercuts Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion to Congress earlier this month that moderates make up the bulk of the guerrilla movement against President Bashar Assad’s regime and are growing stronger.

Kerry told Congress that Islamist extremists make up only 15 to 25 percent of the rebels. But a closer examination of the composition of fighting groups suggests that his figure is low.

Charles Lister, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in Great Britain, circulated a study last week showing that al-Qaida-linked fighters and “hard-line Islamists” who coordinate closely with them number more than 40 percent of the anti-Assad forces. “Genuine moderates, with a distinctly nationalist-secular outlook,” Lister said, account for 20 to 25 percent of the estimated 100,000 anti-Assad fighters.

Even some units that nominally are under the control of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council espouse radical ideology that opposes elections and other hallmarks of a democratic vision for Syria.

Battles in the past few days in Syria have only supported the assessment that Islamists, not moderates, hold sway in the anti-Assad movement.

Attacks on foreign journalists by al-Qaida-linked Islamists have risen so dramatically in the last few days that Peter Bouckaert, the director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, warned all foreign reporters Thursday to stay out of northern Syria.

The changes in the fighters’ makeup are at odds with the words of politicians such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been a vocal supporter of arming the “moderate” rebels. McCain caused much fanfare when he slipped into Syria on a secret trip in May, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. visitor to rebel-held territory.

Asked whether McCain could make the same trip today, Bouckaert said: “Absolutely not. He might be able to hop across the border in some places, but going deep into Syria would be impossible because ISIS is operating in many places they weren’t before.”

He referred to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, an al-Qaida affiliate made up primarily of foreign fighters (Sham is the Arabic word for the region that includes Syria). McCain’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment.

American pundits and officials are fond of sorting Syrian rebels into three broad categories: the “good rebels” affiliated with the Supreme Military Council, the conservative Islamists of an umbrella group called the Syrian Islamic Front, and the extremists in al-Qaida-affiliated groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the Nusra Front.