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Explainer: What Do We Know About Al-Qaeda In Syria?

A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (center), holds position with comrades in the village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo, in April.
A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (center), holds position with comrades in the village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo, in April.
Secretary of State John Kerry has told U.S. lawmakers that limited military strikes against Syrian regime assets are not likely to strengthen Al-Qaeda militants in Syria. Kerry said Syria's opposition had "increasingly become more defined by its moderation."

But Russian President Vladimir Putin called Kerry a liar who "knows that he is lying." RFE/RL takes a closer look at what is known about Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria.

Why has the strength of Al-Qaeda within Syria's opposition movement become a significant issue?

U.S. lawmakers are debating whether limited strikes should be carried out against assets of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in response to alleged chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. One argument against U.S. strikes is the claim that Al-Qaeda would be the main benefactor and gain strength within Syria's opposition.

That argument has been made by Assad's regime, which claims opposition fighters have always been "terrorists." Russian officials have echoed that claim, arguing that the Syrian opposition is an Al-Qaeda-dominated movement.

What does U.S. President Barack Obama's administration say about the balance between Al-Qaeda and moderates in the Syrian opposition?

Washington is not releasing specific numbers about how many Al-Qaeda militants are thought to be part of the broad range of fragmented opposition groups fighting Assad's regime. Those estimates have only been presented to U.S. lawmakers in classified briefings.

But in testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3, Kerry said it was "basically incorrect" to claim Syria's opposition is becoming more infiltrated by Al-Qaeda militants. Kerry told lawmakers that "extremists" now make up 15-25 percent of all antiregime fighters in Syria. He said the total number of opposition fighters was "in the tens of thousands," with estimates between 80,000 and 100,000. He also said the latest intelligence showed the number of Al-Qaeda fighters among the rebels is lower than "previously expected."

"The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to...[the] democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria," Kerry added.

What do we know about Al-Qaeda's presence in Syria?

There are two major Al-Qaeda factions fighting in Syria. One is Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Last month, the U.S. State Department announced Baghdadi had moved his base of operations into Syria. The other major Al-Qaeda faction in Syria is the Al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra. It was formed in early 2012 with help from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Al-Nusra Front is now led by Mohammad al-Golani, a Syrian national who initially downplayed the group's links to Al-Qaeda. The Al-Nusra Front now openly declares loyalty to Al-Qaeda's Egyptian leader, Ayman Zawahri, who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan.

Despite following different leaders, the two main Al-Qaeda factions in Syria are cooperating with each other to fight Assad's regime. They also have been able to recruit Sunni militants as foreign volunteers in Syria.

What do Western experts say about the strength of Al-Qaeda within the Syrian opposition?

Shiraz Maher, an expert on Islamic extremism at King's College in London, says Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who want Islamic rule are at one end of a broad spectrum of opposition groups. Maher says secular, nationalist Syrians at the other end of the spectrum are simply "fighting for their freedom" and comprise the overwhelming majority of Syria's opposition.

But Maher says Al-Qaeda militants in Syria are relatively empowered because they have access to men, money, and munitions in a way that moderates don't have. He says that situation actually strengthens the case for greater Western intervention in order to bolster the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.

Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, says any military intervention that attacks Assad's forces and degrades their capabilities will "inevitably influence the balance of power" in Syria's civil war. He describes the Al-Qaeda factions in Syria as "strong and growing." He concludes that the U.S. Congress should endorse "a robust effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat" the Al-Qaeda factions in Syria before they become an even greater threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week called Kerry a liar, claiming he had denied to U.S. lawmakers that Al-Qaeda was operating in Syria. What exactly did Putin say about Kerry's testimony?

Putin wrongly claimed that Kerry had testified before the U.S. Congress that there were not any Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria.

"I watched the debates in the Congress. A congressman asks Mr. Kerry: 'Is there Al-Qaeda there? There has been rumor that they are gaining strength'. He [Kerry] replies, 'No. I am telling you firmly: There are none of them there,'" Putin said.

"As a matter of fact, the principal combative unit [acting in Syria now] is the so-called Al-Nusra, which is an Al-Qaeda unit. And they know this. I even felt quite awkward. We are communicating with them and assume that they are decent people. And he is telling an outright lie, and he knows that he is lying. This is sad."

What has Kerry and the Obama administration actually told U.S. lawmakers and the public about the threat posed by Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria?

Both Kerry and President Obama have stressed concerns that the Assad regime's chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda fighters now in Syria and later be used against the United States or its allies. Kerry told U.S. lawmakers this was one of the reasons military strikes should be carried out against Assad's regime -- in order to "deprive or degrade" Assad's chemical-weapons arsenal.

"Since President Obama's policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive or degrade Assad's chemical weapons deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war," Kerry said.

"In addition, we have important strategic national-security interests. Not just in preventing proliferation of chemical weapons but to avoid the creation of a safe haven or a base of operations for extremists -- Al-Nusra, others -- to use these chemical weapons either against us or against our friends."

Quiz: Syria, Its Friends, And Enemies

Quiz: Syria, Its Friends, And Enemies

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