ISW’s Elizabeth O’Bagy Breaks Down Composition of Syrian Rebels

The 7 most interesting minutes on Syria you will watch today


Senior Research Analyst for the Institute of the Study of War Elizabeth O’Bagy broke down the state of affairs in Syria Monday on FNC’s “Special Report.”

O’Bagy explained contrary to fears that Syrian rebels are predominantly extremist, many of the groups composing rebel forces have formed alliances and incorporated goals conducive to U.S. interests.

These allied groups with sympathies to U.S. interests, O’Bagy said, actually make up the majority of the Syrian rebels:

BRET BAIER: Let’s put that graphic back up there. The red are the extremist groups in that list. And you see the red blocks. The blue are what? Okay guys?

ELIZABETH O’BAGY: The blue is the Syrian Islamic front, and this front is actually a group of more Islamist and Salafist groups that have allied together that are pushing for an Islamic form of governance and have proven themselves at times willing to work with the more moderate opposition and other times unwilling to do so. So these are kind of the groups that are on the fence right now so to speak. But in many ways have shown that when the capacity is behind the more moderate groups are more than willing to submit themselves to a general chain of command under those moderate forces.

BRET BAIER: Okay. As you detail it, there are more good guy groups that the U.S. can work with outnumbering the extremist elements by far?

ELIZABETH O’BAGY: Right. Absolutely. And I think that the point has been made in the press that either side, whether the regime or rebel, there’s really no side fighting for U.S. interests, and, again, I think what I’ve tried to show through this research and by traveling around with many of these rebel groups is that there are actually a majority of the opposition that would be aligned with U.S. interests.

O’Bagy went on to caution against the assessment of some that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are “winning” against the rebels, thus decreasing the probability that Assad would be inclined to use chemical weapons.

Assad’s victory against the rebels in Homs province has been overemphasized and in reality the dictator’s forces are under increased stress, O’Bagy said.

Moreover, according to O’Bagy, any U.S. action in the country needs to address a strategic objective and be geared towards preventing the Syrian rebels and general population from becoming radicalized:

BRET BAIER: So the whole line that Assad is winning, why would he have to use chemical weapons if he’s winning? How would you answer that?

ELIZABETH O’BAGY: My answer would be that Assad is not winning. I think there has been an overemphasis of his victories in the Homs front, specifically in Homs province after al-Qusayr and the defeat of the major opposition in the city of Homs. But what that has meant is that the regime has left critical vulnerabilities, across many other fronts, leaving openings for the opposition in Aleppo and specifically in Damascus.

BRET BAIER: And quickly, if the United States does some action with a coalition that includes Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, perhaps it’s not extensive. How do you think that would translate to these groups on the ground and their ability to wage a successful campaign against Assad?

ELIZABETH O’BAGY: I think the key thing is that any action the U.S. engages on needs to have some sort of strategic objective. It needs to be more than just a punitive measure, and this is partly because this is a real turning point for the population and the opposition in terms of the impact of these more radical and extremist groups. And this could be a really critical turning point in terms of an irreversible process of radicalization by which those moderate forces that are very much active and are currently serving as the bulk of the forces could quickly be taken over in terms of ideology by the extremist groups.