“We actually do feel that a great percentage of the opposition are moderates that we’re working with,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in response to a question about the strength of the al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusrah (the al-Nusrah Front).
“Clearly, the prime minister and the secretary-general and President Jarba are all individuals working to help the innocent men, women, and children of Syria who have been impacted,” she added, referring to the three top leaders in the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
The SNC elected Ahmad Tumeh, described in some media reports as a “moderate Islamist,” as prime minister at a meeting in Istanbul on Saturday. The SNC last July elected Ahmad al-Jarba as president and Badr Jamous as secretary-general.
Psaki’s “great percentage” assertion is in line with other recent statements by the administration. Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers on Sept. 3 that claims the opposition was becoming less moderate and “more infiltrated by al-Qaeda” were “basically not true,” saying on the contrary that “the opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation.” (Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kerry of lying.)
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes concurred with Kerry two days later, telling reporters traveling to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, “We’ve always been very clear that there is a segment of the opposition that are extremists, but that there’s a broader majority who are moderate.”
Those assessment have been called into question, again, by a new report from British consultancy IHS Jane’s, which attempts a breakdown of the approximately 100,000 total fighters in the anti-Assad opposition.
The report to be released later this week is available only to corporate clients, but report author Charles Lister on his Twitter account said just 20,000 could be regarded as “genuine moderate nationalists,” with Kurdish separatists making up a further 5,000-10,000.
Lister put the number of jihadists among the rebels at around 10,000, the number of Sunni Salafist Islamists at around 30,000, and the number of Muslim Brotherhood Islamists at about 35,000.
This means almost half of the total are jihadists or hardline Islamists – even without including Muslim Brotherhood Islamists in the count.
A debate over whether the West should view Muslim Brotherhood Islamist ideology as “moderate” has played out particularly in the Egyptian context since the 2011 revolution that brought to power a Muslim Brotherhood administration, cut short after one year by the military on July 3.
Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, has traveled several times to rebel-controlled parts of northern Syria over the last year, interviewing commanders and others.
He argued in a recent paper that Americans should be aware of attempts by pro-rebel mouthpieces to rebrand Muslim Brotherhood-oriented militias in Syria as “moderate” and “democratic.”
In reality, Spyer said, they share the ideas of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Don’t be fooled,” he concluded.
Last week CNSNews.com reported that Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Riyadh Al-Shaqfa in a television interview last year said his group does not believe a post-Assad Syria would ever recognize Israel.
Among the most effective and well-armed rebel groups in Syria are the two al-Qaeda-affiliated ones – al-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS); and a Salafist entity called Ahrar al-Sham, which also includes many foreign fighters.
In its latest update, released last week, a U.N.-commissioned expert panel investigating violations of human rights law in the Syrian civil war reported that, “Despite efforts to limit the extremists’ influence in opposition circles, the radicalization of anti-government fighters continued” in recent months.
“Alongside a growing number of foreign fighters, the discipline and operational abilities of radical fighters, combined with better access to reliable sponsors, allowed them to outmatch the fractious moderate groups.”
The report said al-Nusrah and ISIS have also “developed their own strongholds in the north” of Syria.
Jihadists and other Islamist rebel factions have clashed in various parts of the country in recent months, most recently near the border with Iraq last weekend.