Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that extremist brigades are among the best fighters in the Syrian rebel forces currently waging war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"You are correct to say that they have proven themselves to be probably the best fighters, are the most trained and aggressive on the ground," Kerry said, referring to groups like the al-Qaeda linked ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been formally designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. The secretary of state was speaking in a Google Hangout interview.
Kerry's remark painted a slightly darker picture of the anti-Assad fighting forces than he has in previous statements, in which he largely sought to downplay the prominence of those extremist groups in the opposition.
Last Wednesday, during testimony on Capitol Hill, Kerry described the "bad guys," as he called them, as a minority in the opposition, estimating that they make up 15 percent to 25 percent of the fighters.
The Assad regime has consistently tried to make the opposite case, arguing that the entire opposition is composed of radical elements and "terrorists" -- an assessment that experts have widely dismissed. But these experts, while they do not dispute that the radical forces are a minority in terms of actual fighters, generally believe that without the extremists' influence the rebellion would not be making the advances it has in recent months. As Charles Lister, an analyst for IHS Jane's, wrote in a recent article:
Like it or not, groups on the more extreme end of the spectrum, particularly those affiliated with al Qaeda, have proven remarkably adept at spreading their military resources across large swathes of territory, joining battles at the pivotal moment, and exploiting their superior organizational structures to establish political control and influence over territory. While some moderate groups have also presented tight levels of organization and command and control, jihadist and Salafist insurgent groups have by and large been notably more effective in this regard.
This was the point Kerry acknowledged on Tuesday -- even as he continued to dismiss the argument that the extremist groups are the "tip of the spear" in the fight, calling that a slight to the forces of the Free Syrian Army, led by Gen. Salim Idriss.
"This sort of notion that al-Nusra and the rest of these guys are the whole tip of the spear, that does a great disservice to General Idriss and his forces," Kerry said. "Their numbers are not as high as some people have estimated in terms of actual real fighters on the ground, and the people in the region that I talk to, who know both the region and the country much better than I do -- and I’m talking about the leaders of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Turkey -- all believe if you can hold Syria together as a country and if you can get to Geneva to the negotiations so that you ultimately have a transitional government and the Syrian people choose their future, if that happens, they will expel, they will stand up against these other groups."