Assessing Role Extremists Play In Syrian Opposition

Renee Montagne talks to Elizabeth O'Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War about the balance of power among different rebel groups in Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And while many in Congress doubt the wisdom of striking Syria at all, Sen. John McCain wants to do more. He wants to be sure airstrikes and other measures help the Syrian rebels.

McCain has downplayed concerns about extremists among the rebels. And he cited the work of Elizabeth O'Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War who, like McCain, has met with Syrian rebels. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Elizabeth O'Bagy also works on a contractual basis with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a subcontractor with the U.S. and British governments that advocates on behalf of the Syrian opposition. O'Bagy insists her work is separate from the group's political advocacy.] As she moved around the country with the more moderate rebels, O'Bagy has observed groups like the al-Nusra fighters, who are linked to al-Qaida; and in her view, they have not taken over the fight.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY: These more extremist groups are not necessarily committed to the fight against the Syrian regime. They do not see this as a directly - kind of nationalist fight for the survival of Syria, but as the beginning of a larger fight to establish an Islamic caliphate. And to that degree, you see them withdrawing from active battlefronts. You see them pulling back from the front lines and actually focusing on governance and building their authority, creating safe havens in northern Syria, where you have liberated territory. And they're actually leaving the major fighting to those more moderate forces.

MONTAGNE: So how did these more extremist groups end up taking over where they have taken over?

O'BAGY: So the reason that extremists were able to really - kind of create a presence in the north, specifically in the liberated areas of Syria, is because they had reliable logistic networks that were moving through the north. More importantly, they were able to control the distribution of humanitarian aid. And this has been really key because previously, up until very recently, they had gained a perception that they were the only ones that could provide food, water, oil, electricity - all of the kind of basic necessities of life, to the civilian population.

And the more moderate forces, who were getting, essentially, no outside or external support, just couldn't provide the same level of resources. It allowed them to really come to be seen as leaders of the community, and allowed for the extremist groups to take control of a number of the governance structures that were in place.

MONTAGNE: Wouldn't efforts that hurt Assad, help them?

O'BAGY: I think that if there is a limited, offset strike that aims to hit at Assad but doesn't actually empower the more moderate groups then yes, it could very well have the unintended consequence of empowering some of the more extremist forces. But even though there are some extremist strongholds in the north, the civilian population is actively pushing back. When I was last in Aleppo and traveling around northern Syria, I was witnessing near-daily protests in a number of different towns and villages where people were pushing back against some of these extremist groups, specifically - kind of the harsh lifestyle measures that they were trying to implement, in terms of - kind of rule of law and governance, because these extremist groups really do need the support of the population in order to continue to operate freely. To that degree, having active protests has helped kind of mitigate some of their more extreme behavior, and they've recalled some of their harsher measures that they've tried to implement.

MONTAGNE: In your view, what specific actions could the U.S. and the West take in Syria, at this moment in time, that would make a positive difference?

O'BAGY: First of all, I think that a strike is important, if nothing else because of the psychological impact that no reaction would have on the Syrian population as a whole. That includes regime supporters and opposition supporters. I think that there should be some sort of U.S. action to degrade the Syrian military capability while simultaneously expanding a train and assist program. That would help empower the moderate opposition both militarily but also politically.

MONTAGNE: Elizabeth O'Bagy is a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Thank you for joining us.

O'BAGY: Thank you for having me.

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Clarification Sept. 7, 2013

In this interview, Elizabeth O'Bagy was identified as a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. She also works on a contractual basis with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a subcontractor with the United States and British governments which also advocates on behalf of the Syrian opposition. O'Bagy insists her work is separate from the group's political advocacy.

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