How Many Extremists Are in Syria Anyway?

Credit: أبو بكر السوري/wikimediaCredit: أبو بكر السوري/wikimediaOne of the strongest arguments against intervention in the Syrian civil war has been the involvement of Jihadist groups fighting against Assad. While there are moderate rebels there are also rebels who have connections to Al Qaeda and who want to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Some have argued that an intervention in Syria could benefit the more unpleasant elements of Assad’s opposition, who are themselves responsible for horrific atrocities.

Unsurprisingly, the Islamic influence on Assad’s opposition was brought up at yesterday’s hearing at the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, whose members asked Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey about potential military intervention in Syria.

Below is an exchange between Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Kerry at yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing:

SEN. JOHNSON: How do we know that Hezbollah, because they've been so cooperative with the Assad regime -- how do we know that they already don't have access to chemical weapons? Do we have any feel for that at all?

SEC. KERRY: I think we need to talk about that in our classified session. But let me just say to you that in terms of the opposition numbers, you see ranges up to 80(,000), 90,000, 100,000 in total opposition. You see ranges from -- well, I don't want to go into all the numbers, but in the tens of thousands in terms of operative, active combatants. The -- I've seen some recent data on the numbers of the extremists in al-Nusra. They're actually lower than former expectations.

I would also say to you, Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular. It's -- it's our judgment that -- and the judgment of our good friends who actually know a lot of this in many ways better than we do because it's their region, their neighborhood -- I'm talking about the Saudis, the Emirates, the Qataris, the Turks, the Jordanians -- they all believe that if you could have a fairly rapid transition, the secular component of Syria will re-emerge and you will isolate --

SEN. JOHNSON: OK. Very good.

Today, while testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee Kerry told Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas.) that between 15 to 20 percent of the opposition were extremists and that the number of “oppositionists” ranged between 70,000 to 100,000, meaning that Kerry believes that a low estimate of the number of extremists fighting in Syria against Assad is between roughly 10,500 and 15,000.

McCaul told Kerry that in the briefings he received the number of extremists fighting against Assad was estimated to be half of the total opposition force. That the secretary of state and the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee have such vastly different estimates on the number of extremists fighting Assad is worrying and hardly reassuring.

Even if Kerry’s lowest estimates are to be believed there are at least 10,000 extremists fighting in Syria. Many of these fighters are foreign, and there is concern about whether they will return to their home countries to carry out terrorist attacks once the conflict is over.

Regardless of how many extremists there are fighting in Syria it is important to remember that it could be the actions of extremists within Assad's opposition, not the Assad regime, that escalates America’s involvement in the conflict. As Reason’s Matt Welch highlighted earlier today, Kerry didn’t rule out the possibility of American boots being put on the ground in the event that a group like Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra looked like they were about to get their hands on chemical weapons during yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

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  • creech||

    Only 25% of the group are wolves, the rest are sheep. So, guess what's for dinner?

  • PapayaSF||

    One trouble with civil wars and revolutions is that even if they start with a pretty broad coalition, once the dust settles, the extremists often take over: the French Revolution, Russia 1917, Iran 1979, etc.

  • Sudden||

    Exactly. I think this situation parallels fairly closely with the October 1917 Revolution.

  • Nazdrakke||

    Imagine that.. a motivated militant minority might end up exerting its' will over a body politic. It's a radical idea, surely Syria couldn't end up in such an unusual situation, could it?

  • Adam330||

    I'm not convinced that simply counting numbers tells you anything. Assad's government is from minority, yet has ruled for decades.

  • ||

    Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular

    Pretty sure the guys with the guns will decide weather they remain secular or not...not the vast majority.

    Kerry really is a drooling imbecile.

  • Number 2||

    I seem to recall that Iraq was a "secular country" too until its Ba'ath dictator was removed by U.S. military action. Then matters changed kinda quickly.

  • CatoTheElder||

    According to Kerry, the Saudis are paying for this war. I doubt that the world's most strident theocratic monarchy is much interested in establishing a secular democracy in Syria.

    Of course, truth is the first casualty of war. So I expect lots of lying. But Kerry's narrative is utter nonsense; the story would be idiotic even if all the lies were true. This insane coalition of neocons and progressives is incapable of anticipating the consequences of their words and deeds, and is ad libbing us to catastrophe.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    You know, the thought occurred to me to wonder if Assad isn't sitting in his palace wondering "Bomb me? BOMB ME? I'm frigging killing Al Qaeda. Bastard should be giving me a fu**ing MEDAL!"

  • PH2050||

    Exactly.

    Every veteran I've talked to has serious problems with the fact that the US government is even *considering* aiding AQ-related forces.

    When a group of guys kills your friends, you tend not to like that group. Funny how that works, huh?

  • Raven Nation||

    I'm not advocating for US involvement in Syria. Quite the opposite in fact. But, if this:

    "Kerry didn’t rule out the possibility of American boots being put on the ground in the event that a group like Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra looked like they were about to get their hands on chemical weapons"

    happened, is that a justification for US involvement in some way?

  • Alien Invader||

    Why would it be?

    If AQ was going to get their hands on a nuke loaded ICBM, along with the ability to actually use it, then they'd be in a position to actually threaten the US. Otherwise, they're in no better position to hit the US than with any other weapons. In fact chem weapons have to be a whole lot harder to carry around with you.

    This, assume we knew AQ was in such a position. But are they telling us the truth?

  • Raven Nation||

    Thanks for those thoughts, provides some perspective.

    Would it be possible for AQ to move chemical weapons overland into Europe? Could they be dispersed without using a missile or something?

    I don't know. I'm just asking.

  • Inigo M.||

    Traditionally, as in WWI, they are dispersed by packing them into an explosive shell fired from a mortar or howitzer, not by using a missile. But a projectile isn't a requirement. Take for example the gas attack mounted on the Tokyo subway system a few years ago by that Japanese cult. I seem to recall they used ordinary soda bottles. (Then again, not as many people were harmed as the cult had apparently anticipated.)

  • Gray Ghost||

    This is a picture of the now-scrapped M139 chemical bomblet. It was part of the payload of many different types of missiles and bombs that could carry chemical weapons. It's 4.5 inches across, made IIRC of some form of steel, and contained about 1 1/3 lbs (590 g) of sarin, along with a booster charge to aerosolize the liquid. The estimated lethal concentration for inhaled sarin is 70 mg*min/m^3. So, ~8000 m^3 with a lethal concentration of agent, equally distributed, per bomblet. The Honest John rocket of the 1950s could carry 52 of them; the larger Sergeant could carry 330. I'm sure ex-Soviet systems are similar.

    The point is, they aren't that big. And they can be tough to use effectively. But, released in a closed environment with limited exits...bad times.

    Sarin has a short shelf-live as a completed compound, but stored as a binary system, it can be viable for years. It's easily possible for AQ to smuggle chemical agents into a Western country.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular"

    Yeah, genius, you could have said the same thing about Iran in 1978. "It's the land of poets and musicians - you think some Muslim extremists are just going to - *snicker* - waltz in and take over? Why, the Iranian people would never stand for it!"

  • Goldwin Smith||

    Yeah, genius, you could have said the same thing about Iran in 1978

    Or Afghanistan...

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Or Iraq or Libya or Egypt...

  • PH2050||

    C'mon man, we'll be greeted as liberators!

  • PH2050||

    The stupidity and naivete of someone like Kerry is mind-boggling. Either it's real, in which case WTF is this guy doing in such a position, or it's fake, which is an equally scary thought because it implies that he thinks everyone else is stupid enough to believe him.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Didn't his wife take ill around the time he took office? Perhaps the Praetorian was making sure he knew the consequences of forgetting who was actually in charge. Bush had his pretzel incident. Shit, 2013 has made me paranoid.

  • Skip||

    No one would have to bully Kerry into toeing the Obama line. He does it very willingly.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "Either it's real, in which case WTF is this guy doing in such a position"

    Oh it's real. Yeah, you could say that about most of the idiots in Washington. The fact that they think they are so smart is the real face palm.

  • ant1sthenes||

    I would also say to you, Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular.

    Well, there are certainly people who are pluralistic (which is not the same thing as secular, leftists), but once you take Assad's supporters and refugees out of the equation, do they constitute anything close to a majority?

  • Alien Invader||

    The truth does not matter half as much as what John Kerry would like to believe. Because whatever that is, is what John Kerry wants all Americans to believe.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    SEC. KERRY: I think we need to talk about that in our classified session.

    That's one idea. A better idea is we talk about here and now with the eyes and ears of America focused on us.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    I would also say to you, Syria historically has been secular...

    Well, yeah. Because Assad's regime has historically taken a much more secular tone than other regimes in the region. This is in no small part a function of the fact that Assad is part of a minority sect in the country. If a secular Syria is of value, Assad's probably one of the better guarantors of it's continuation.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    In point of fact, Assad's father actively put down an Islamist revolt in the late 70s and early 80s.

  • LynchPin1477||

    How do you even determine the number of "extremists"? Is someone going around handing out copies of the "Jihadi Purity Test"?

  • Alien Invader||

    Oh c'mon. All you have to do is ask them in a survey.

    Americans have reached an era where they have mastered The Survey. Unfortunately they forgot almost everything else they ever knew, right around this same point in time.

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