Congressional debate over planned U.S. airstrikes against Syria is raising new concerns from lawmakers that attacks will bolster Islamist rebels and increase the chances al Qaeda-linked forces will come to power.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, told reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday that military attacks in response to the use of chemical weapons could be carried out even if Congress votes against the military operation.
"There are a whole bunch of decisions that I make that are unpopular, as you well know, but I do so because I think they're the right thing to do," Obama said in response to a question about attacking Syria without congressional authorization.
A future military strike will be limited in both time and scope and will be "proportional" in degrading the Bashar al-Assad regime’s chemical weapons delivery capabilities, the president said.
Obama noted that differences remained among the G-20 summit leaders over whether to seek United Nations approval for a Syria strike. The president said the world body is an impediment to taking action in response to Syria’s recent nerve gas attack.
The issue of whether U.S. strikes will boost Syria’s Islamist rebels was discussed earlier this week during congressional debate on whether to authorize missile attacks. Congress is divided over the planned attacks, with both Republicans and Democrats voicing support and opposition to the strikes.
Congressional testimony on the Syrian rebels comes as new video evidence of terrorist atrocities by rebels and reports from the Middle East that supposedly secular Free Syrian Army rebels are covertly linked to the Islamist groups.
Two Senate Republicans, John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), are pressing the administration to expand the scope of the current battle plan to include targets that will weaken or collapse the Assad regime and help Free Syrian Army rebels, numerically the largest rebel group, take power in Damascus.
However, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday that the president does not favor adding language to the congressional resolution on the use of force to include provisions for seeking "regime change" or increasing aid to rebels.
"The preference of the president is to have this a narrow authorization so that nobody gets confused here and people aren't asked to vote for two different things," Kerry said.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he is concerned U.S. strikes will ultimately aid al Qaeda because of links between rebels and the terror group.
"Every time I get briefed on this, it gets worse and worse because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world to come to Syria for the fight," McCaul said. "And my concern is any strike against this regime, as bad as it is, will empower these radical Islamists, these extremists."
McCaul said "we’ve seen this movie before" in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya where Islamists terrorists filled a power vacuum.
Kerry said in response that 15 to 20 percent of the rebel forces are "bad guys," including the al-Nusra Front.
Two main al Qaeda-linked groups are operating in Syria and U.S. officials say their numbers and forces have increased significantly over the past several months.
However, Kerry said "there is a real moderate opposition that exists" headed by former Syrian Brig. Gen. Salim Idris."
"Our friends, from the Saudis to the Emiratis to the Qataris and others are now, in a disciplined way, funneling assistance through Gen. Idris and the moderate opposition, who are getting stronger as a result of it," Kerry said.
McCaul said there are moderates among the rebels, but that in briefings he received officials stated that the armed Islamist opposition is "50 percent and rising."
"These fighters coming globally are not coming in as moderates. They were coming in as jihadists, and that's my concern," McCaul said.
Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.) on Tuesday raised the prospect that U.S. strikes would aid terrorists. "How can we guarantee that one surgical strike will have any impact other than to tighten the vice grip Assad has on his power or allow rebels allied with al Qaeda to gain a stronger foothold in Syria?" he asked.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House committee hearing that he is worried about using U.S. military force on behalf of the rebels.
"I still am cautious about whether we should use U.S. military force in support of the opposition for the purpose of tipping the balance," Dempsey said.
He said other methods could be used in development of a "moderate opposition."
Dempsey warned that supporting opposition rebels "does come with some risk of the slippery slope of not entirely understanding when that support ends and how much it has to grow over time."
The four-star general said he favors rebel support with training and equipping moderate forces but "not by becoming their military arm.
During an appearance Thursday on MSNBC, Kerry was asked about a new video showing Syrian rebel atrocities. The video showed rebels executing a group of seven Syrian soldiers whose hands were tied behind their backs. Earlier gruesome videos included one showing a rebel cutting the heart out of a Syrian soldier and eating it and another one of a rebel beheading two Christian ministers.
"I believe that those men in those videos are disadvantaged by the American response to the chemical weapons use because it in fact empowers the moderate opposition," Kerry said.
Kerry said there are about 11 "really bad opposition groups, so-called opposition."
The groups are not fighting Assad and are not part of the moderate opposition being supported by the United States and its allies. "We are busy separating the support we're giving from any possibility of that support going to these guys," he said, adding that a "careful vetting process" is used in choosing which rebels to support that involves training outside Syria with the help of Turks, Jordanians, Qataris, the Saudis, and Persian Gulf Emiratis.
McCain added language to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution on the use of force, which passed Tuesday night, stating that military force should be used for "changing the momentum on the battlefield in Syria."
McCain also insists most rebels are moderates and noted that the opposition military council condemned the videotaped murders of the Syrian soldiers that gain attention after a story appeared about it in the New York Times.
A report by French news correspondent Etienne Monin from the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday stated that the Free Syrian Army is cooperating closely with the jihadist rebels.
The report published by France Info Online, the website of Radio France, quoted a rebel as saying "the Islamic State is now very powerful in [Aleppo]. It is imposing order and security. No one is attempting to counterbalance its rule."
The group’s formal name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda offshoot controlling regions of northern and eastern Syria. The group is made up of mainly foreign jihadists and is currently at odds with al-Nusra Front, Syria’s other al Qaeda affiliate.
The report stated that the Free Syrian Army "operates with the jihadi groups on the ground."
The al Qaeda-linked rebels reportedly fear the upcoming U.S. strikes, likely to employ hundreds of Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles fired from ships in the Mediterranean, will target their forces.
United Press International, quoting a jihadist leader in Jordan, said two al Qaeda-linked groups had dispersed their forces from areas near Dara and Aleppo in anticipation they could be targeted in U.S. cruise missile strikes.
In other developments, a Kuwaiti news report published Aug. 31 quoted sources close to Assad as saying the chemical attack Aug. 21 against Ghouta near Damascus, which killed more than 1,400 people, may have been carried out by rogue Syrian military officers.
The Al Ray online news outlet reported Aug. 31 that the nerve gas attack on Ghouta could have been retaliation for a rebel massacre in Latakia that killed 725 Alawites—an Islamic sect that dominates the current leadership. The report also said that rebels may have carried out the attack, a position advocated by Russia’s government.
Also, former Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Ali Habib reportedly defected to Turkey recently and is expected to join opposition forces. He is said to be the highest-ranking Syrian defector to turn on the Assad regime.
Germany’s intelligence service, known as BND, recently held closed-door briefings on the Ghouta chemical attack and concluded that the large death toll may have been the result of a mistake in preparing the chemical agent.
Der Spiegel reported Thursday that BND Director Gerhard Schindler told lawmakers that the chemical attacks appeared to be the work of Syrian government forces and that earlier chemical attacks used strongly diluted nerve agent. The newspaper stated that Schindler suggested in briefings that it was "possible that a mistake was made in mixing the gas and that much more poison than planned was fired."