WASHNGTON – The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee is concerned that terrorist groups with links to al-Qaeda could take control of Syria’s chemical weapons stock if the government of President Bashar Assad collapses.
Addressing the panel during a hearing on the Syrian crisis, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) characterized efforts to overthrow that country’s regime as “a noble mission” but warned against possible repercussions. Extremist groups that comprise at least a portion of the rebel forces seeking to overthrow Assad “will fill the vacuum” and gain control of a chemical weapons arsenal to the world’s detriment.
“Based on the briefings we have received, it is conclusive that he (Assad) used chemical weapons against his own people,” McCaul said. “But damaging the regime’s command and control posts will have the effect of helping the rebels. The Assad regime’s decades of repression have undoubtedly wrought this revolution but the moderate resistance has been infiltrated with some of the fiercest Islamist fighters in the world.”
McCaul said his main concern revolves around the security surrounding Assad’s chemical weapons and questioned whether any U.S. effort to strike against the stockpiles would have a positive impact.
“Securing these weapons will take an international coalition and will ensure that they can neither be used by Assad or the extremist elements of the rebel forces,” McCaul said.
The chairman’s comments came during a day of high-level talks about possible U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict with President Obama offering his own appraisal during a nationally televised address. Russia, a Syrian ally, continued its initiative to avoid direct U.S. involvement in the conflict by directing the United Nations to assume control and oversight of the arsenal.
Obama is seeking congressional approval to strike at the stockpiles since Syria is thought to have violated international law by gassing its own people, reportedly killing hundreds, including women and children. Other nations, most particularly Great Britain, have opted against any aggressive action, meaning the U.S. would be acting unilaterally. Polls show the American public opposed to intervention and it appears unlikely at this time that Congress will offer its go-ahead.
McCaul expressed hope that the discussions over Syria ceding control over its chemical weapons bear fruit.
“In a situation where I’ve said there’s no good outcome, that might be our best option,” he said.
McCaul said the U.S. must take a “realistic” look at the Syrian situation and consider the “ripple effects” before becoming further involved.
“While the administration contends that we can support the rebels and differentiate between the moderate and extremist wings, the reality is that they are now working together,” he said. “Any U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime will also benefit the extremists fighting him who will undoubtedly use Assad’s weapons against American allies and interests and possibly even our homeland if given the chance.”
Since calling for military strikes, the Obama administration has tended to downplay the strength of Islamic extremist groups within the ranks of the Syrian rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry maintains that groups like those affiliated with al-Qaeda remain marginal players in the conflict and are unlikely to gain any advantage if the U.S. acts.
But the witnesses appearing before the committee were equally unenthusiastic over the prospect of U.S. involvement. Thomas Joscelyn, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said extremists within the rebels are more influential now than they were two years ago.
While al-Qaeda doesn’t control the resistance movement, Joscelyn said, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks dominates Syria’s northern sector.
“These same al Qaeda-affiliated forces have fought alongside Free Syrian Army brigades,” Joscelyn said. “There is no clear geographic dividing line between the most extreme fighters and other rebels. For example, al-Qaeda’s affiliates played a key role in the fighting in Latakia, an Assad stronghold on the coast, in early August. And within the past week we saw al Qaeda-affiliated fighters lead an attack in Malula, a Christian village not far from Damascus.”
Robert H. Scales, a retired major general in the U.S. Army and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, told the panel that an American missile strike against Syria “might well adversely affect American security,” noting that past “strikes across the bow of diabolical enemies” have resulted in tragic counter-strikes against American interests both at home and abroad.
In 1986, for instance, then-President Ronald Reagan order an airstrike against Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who retaliated by placing a bomb on Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing hundreds of Americans.
“A missile strike that does not result in regime change in Syria or the defeat of the Syrian army can only have a similar impact,” Scales said. “Failure to defeat Assad might well embolden the Syrians to retaliate against our homeland as well as Americans abroad. In fact Assad has already telegraphed his intention to retaliate, possibly with chemical weapons.”
Assad, Scales said, appears likely to survive the rebels’ threat to his “murderous” regime. Limited strikes in Syria will only “embolden the snake to strike back.”
“While a revenge strike against Syria might endanger the homeland, such an action will have virtually no impact on the Syrian regime or the course of this bloody sectarian civil war,” he said.
“The strikes will only serve to heighten the rage of radical Islamists,” Scales said. “Sadly I believe these strikes will have no serious military consequences.”