WASHINGTON, D.C. – The growing controversy following the Senate vote Thursday authorizing the White House to arm “moderate Syrian rebels” returns a spotlight on Elizabeth O’Bagy, the graduate student who was credited with conceiving the strategy.
O’Bagy was fired from her Washington think-tank job after WND in September 2013 exposed that she falsely claimed to have earned a Ph.D.
WND reported the strategy advocated by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Secretary of State John F. Kerry to represent the Free Syria Army, or FSA, as “moderates” among the rebel forces opposing the government of Bashar al-Assad was advocated by O’Bagy.
The O’Bagy narrative, however, was at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and non-governmental experts who concluded Islamic jihadists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized fighters among the opposition in Syria.
O’Bagy was then a 26-year-old graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Arab studies and political science at Georgetown University.
Five days later, WND reported the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think-tank fired her for lying about her qualifications.
“The Institute for the Study of War has learned and confirmed that, contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy does not in fact have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University,” the statement said. “ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O’Bagy’s employment, effective immediately.”
The Daily Caller reported later that month that immediately after being fired by the Institute for the Study of War, she was hired as a legislative assistant in McCain’s Senate office in Washington.
McCain’s deputy press secretary, Julie Tarallo, confirmed Friday that O’Bagy still works in the senator’s office.
In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 3, 2013, 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 by “moderate opposition forces – a collection of groups known as the Free Syria Army.”
Kerry’s source was an opinion piece O’Bagy published in the Wall Street Journal Aug. 31, 2013, “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War.” The article 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.”
O’Bagy pushes ‘moderate rebel’ narrative
In 2013, in her capacity as a senior research analyst and the Syria team leader at the Institute for the Study of War, O’Bagy authored a March 2013 report titled “The Free Syrian Army.”
In it, she argued:
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.
In 2013, O’Bagy also worked 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, a group that 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,” with the caveat “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.
<b<>O’Bagy organized McCain’s trip to Syria
WND also disclosed that O’Bagy played a central role in organizing McCain’s controversial trip to Syria in May 2013 during which he was accused of meeting with operatives of the Free Syrian Army that had ties to ISIS.
McCain spokeswoman Tarallo issued a statement to WND referring to a Washington Post Fact Checker report saying, “There is zero evidence that any of the men that McCain met with in Syria are linked to the Islamic State.”
Tarallo called it a ‘debunked Internet rumor that has been pushed by America’s enemies, including the terrorist organization Hezbollah, the Iranian regime and Fidel Castro.”
The Facebook page of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria says the Syrian Emergency Task Force organized McCain’s surprise visit to Syria in May, where he met with leaders of the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council.
On May 27, 2013, 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, which controlled 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 military air attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon.