Former CIA leader: Syria’s Islamist Rebels Gaining Power

Michael Morell worries collapse of state will empower al Qaeda

A Free Syrian army fighter stands on a damaged military tank / AP
• September 13, 2013 4:04 pm


Syria’s al Qaeda-linked rebels are gaining strength and garnering support from more secular opposition forces, a former deputy CIA director said.

Michael Morell, who recently retired from the No. 2 position at CIA, also warned in an interview set for broadcast Sunday that a U.S. military strike on Syria is likely to trigger cyber terror attacks.

On Syria’s al Qaeda rebels, Morell identified two main groups: the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al-Sham as "the two most effective organizations on the battlefield."

"They have a disproportionate influence on the battlefield to their size," Morell said in an interview with "60 Minutes" on CBS.

"And because they're so good at fighting the Syrians some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them to fight the Syrians," he said.

Morell warned that Syria’s civil war, which so far has claimed 100,000 lives, will produce one of two bad outcomes. Either "a strong, more brutal [Bashar al] Assad regime, or a rebel government influenced by al Qaeda."

"I'm concerned because where we're headed right now is toward, I fear, the breakup of the state of Syria," Morell said. "Collapse of the central government sectarian warfare, opportunity for al Qaeda to have a safe haven in Syria that is not dissimilar to the safe haven that it once enjoyed in Afghanistan."

Disclosure of the growing threat of al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria comes as the Obama administration is moving ahead with plans to provide covert military assistance to Syrian rebels it regards as "moderate."

Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress recently that most of the estimated 90,000 opposition forces are "moderate."

That view was challenged by Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who said he was informed by intelligence officials that 50 percent of the rebels are Islamists and that the number is growing.

Morell’s comments appear to bolster McCaul’s claims.

Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.) told reporters earlier this month after meeting President Barack Obama that the administration was planning to upgrade its covert aid to moderate rebels.

Delays in the CIA-sponsored program to arm the rebels prompted calls for the Pentagon to take over the program from the intelligence agency, the Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 3.

Asked if it would be better for both sides in the Syrian conflict to wage a costly war of attrition, Morell said he favored a diplomatic solution.

"The best outcome is a negotiated settlement, between the opposition and between the regime that allows for a political transition that keeps the institutions of the state intact," Morell said.

"The reason that is important is because it’s going to take the institution of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al Qaeda when this is done," he said. "And every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded."

Morell said Assad currently believes he’s winning the conflict against the rebels and thus has no incentive to seek a diplomatic solution with opposition rebels.

The best solution is for the United States to balance arms and assistance to the opposition forces so that it provides pressure on the regime to negotiation, but also does not place the rebels in the position where they believe they do not need to negotiate, he said.

To create that balance, more support must be provided to the opposition, across the board, Morell said.

On possible cyber terrorism, Morell said a U.S. military strike probably would not prompt the Syrians to conduct retaliatory attacks because it would not be in their interest.

However, Iran or its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah could take retaliatory attacks.

"What I think you're likely to see from Iran and Hezbollah would be asymmetric attacks. So terrorist attacks, cyberattacks, that's what you're likely to see," Morell said.

The FBI on Aug. 30 issued an advisory to law enforcement agencies and U.S. companies warning that a pro-regime hacker group called the Syrian Electronic Army has carried out effective cyber attacks against social media sites.

Hezbollah also has been developing cyberwarfare capabilities, U.S. officials have said.

Additionally, a cyber attack against Saudi Arabia’s largest oil company, Aramco, was traced to Iranian hackers.

Asked if Iran could conduct similar attacks against U.S. computer networks, Morell said: "No. But I think they are working on it."

A Lebanese news outlet reported Aug. 31 that Hezbollah military and combat units had been placed on "a high state of alert" and that its fighters were redeployed to safe areas over fears Israeli forces would land in Lebanon to conduct operations against them during a U.S. military strike.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi government official said the Syrian regime this week began transporting large amounts of chemical weapons to Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kuwait’s Al Siyasha Online reported Monday.