NEW YORK – Evidence is mounting that the strategy by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Secretary of State John F. Kerry to cast members of the Free Syria Army as “moderates” among the rebel forces opposing the government of Bashir al-Assad was the brain-child of Elizabeth O’Bagy, a 26-year-old graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Arab studies and political science at Georgetown University, who is working on a dissertation on woman’s militancy.
In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Kerry cited O’Bagy, arguing that the war in Syria is “not being waged entirely or even predominately by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaida die-hards,” but rather the struggle is being led but “moderate opposition forces – a collection of groups known as the Free Syria Army.”
Kerry was citing an opinion piece O’Bagy wrote for the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 30 titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War.” It ran with a tag-line “The conventional wisdom – that jihadists are running the rebellion [in Syria] – is not what I’ve witnessed on the ground.”
The O’Bagy narrative, however, is contradicted by intelligence estimates and experts specializing in the region.
After Kerry’s testimony to Congress this week, Reuters reported: “Secretary of State John Kerry’s public assertions that moderate Syrian opposition groups are growing in influence appear to be at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and non-governmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.”
On April 27, the New York Times reported that the Jabhat al-Nursa Front, a group declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, has pledged allegiance to al Qaida’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and remains the group of choice for foreign jihadis pouring into Syria. The Ahrar al-Sham, meanwhile, which shares much of al-Nusra’s extremist ideology, is composed mostly of Syrians.
In her capacity as a senior research analyst and the Syria team leader at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think-tank, O’Bagy authored a report in March titled “The Free Syrian Army” in which she argued as follows:
The opposition movement in Syria has been fragmented from its inception, a direct reflection of Syria’s social complexity and the decentralized grassroots of the uprising. This condition has plagued Syria’s armed opposition since peaceful protestors took up arms and began forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the summer of 2001.
The narrative is currently being circulated in Congress in an attempt to counter the recent disclosure of evidence the rebel groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have committed atrocities against government soldiers and Syrian civilians, may be the parties responsible for the chemical weapons attacks the Obama administration is blaming on the Assad government.
O’Bagy also works as the political director of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, or SETF, chaired by Mohamed Kawam.
Kawam is linked with the Washington-based Syrian Support Group, or SSG, which encourages Americans to send money that arguably could be used to buy weapons for the Free Syria Group.
The “Donate” button on the Syrian Support Group website specifies donations will go toward providing “certain logistical, communications, and other services to the FSA.” The caveat is “the SSG intends to support only those military councils that have adopted the FSA’s Proclamation of Principles,” not the Jabhat al-Nusra or any other group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
The “About the Syrian Support Group” page on the group’s website states the SSG has pursued and received a license from the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control that permits the organization to raise funds and provide certain services to the FSA, further specifying the SSG has to date transported over $10 million in U.S. government aid to the Supreme Military Council of the FSA.
The Facebook page of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria makes clear the Syrian Emergency Task Force organized McCain’s surprise May visit to Syria, where he met with leaders of the FSA Supreme Military Council.
On May 27, the Los Angeles Times reported O’Bagy, in her capacity as political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, said in a telephone interview from Turkey that McCain’s office approached the task force two weeks earlier to ask if it could arrange for him to meet with Syrian rebel leaders in Syria.
O’Bagy, who accompanied McCain on the senator’s May trip to the Middle East, told the newspaper McCain met with FSA commanders in two meetings in Gaziantep, Turkey, and in one meeting about a half mile inside the Syrian border at the Bab Salameh border crossing. There, he talked with the Asifat al-Shamal, identified as the Northern Storm Brigade, that controls the border.
O’Bagy further confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Gen. Salim Idriss, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, and other rebel commanders asked the U.S. to consider giving heavy weapons to the FSA, set up a no-fly zone in Syria and conduct air attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
McCain asked the FSA commanders how they planned to reduce the presence of Islamic extremists in Syrian rebel ranks, O’Bagy told the newspaper.
In Syria, McCain was photographed with a group of Syrian rebels that included Mouaz Moustafa, a Palestinian Arab (seen to far right of photograph, closest to camera) who was introduced to McCain as the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, the group that organized the senator’s trip.
McCain in Syria, May 2013, with Mouaz Moustafa (seen at far right, closest to camera)
On Twitter, Moustafa identifies himself as a Palestinian refugee who moved to the U.S. at 12 years old, worked as a staffer in the U.S. House and Senate (Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.) and participated in the Libyan and Syrian revolutions.
On Instagram, Moustafa calls himself a “Freelance Revolutionary,” adding that he also worked as a field organizer for the Democratic National Committee in 2008.
On Linkedin.com, Moustafa continues to list himself as the executive director at the Libyan Council of North America.
A Daily Caller profile of Moustafa added that he meets with National Security Council staff “every couple of months.”
In recent weeks, O’Bagy and Moustafa have been conducting a media blitz on behalf of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, including interviews with NPR, Fox News, RT, Thom Hartmann’s radio show, Foreign Policy Magazine and MSNBC, arguing that the FSA is the “moderate” rebel group the U.S. should support in Syria.
The Daily Beast has reported that in addition to meeting with Moustafa and FSA leaders in Syria, McCain also met with Mohammad Nour and Ammar Al-Dadikhi (a.k.a. Abu Ibrahim), two men who were part of a group that kidnapped Lebanese religious pilgrims returning from Iran in May 2012. Both were identified as being part of Asifat al Shamal, the Syrian rebel group known as the Northern Storm Brigade controlling the border.