Experts Tell House Panel Syria Strikes Could 'Embolden the Snake to Strike Back'

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.”