By Jim Michaels
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq has hurt the United States' ability to blunt efforts by al-Qaeda militants to extend their reach into neighboring Syria, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., says the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq has made it difficult to thwart al-Qaeda militants from expanding into Syria.
"We still have some operations there, but we cannot impact events on the ground to any degree like we used to," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told USA TODAY.
The U.S. government has said there are signs that al-Qaeda may be behind some of the growing violence in Syria, where rebels are attempting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Bombings in Allepo this month and earlier attacks in Damascus bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda operations, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified recently.
He said al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate is extending its reach into Syria.
As the fighting in Syria continues, it threatens to further regionalize the conflict and heighten sectarian tensions, defense policy analysts say.
"You can easily see the Syrian civil war sucking in regional powers," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was badly weakened by U.S.-backed raids on militant leaders and other operations when American forces were in Iraq, but it has remained a presence in Iraq and has been behind some of the recent violence there.
"If you want to talk about the resiliency of a terrorist organization al-Qaeda in Iraq is probably going to win the contest," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. "It is diminished, but far from a spent force."
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is probably getting people and supplies into Syria using the same network that smugglers and tribes used to bring in foreign fighters, analysts say. Foreign fighters traveled through Syria into Iraq during the height of the insurgency there.
It's simple "reverse engineering" of the smuggling route, Riedel said.
Syria presents al-Qaeda with a chance to breathe new life into its operations in the region by casting itself as a leader in a battle against an autocratic Arab regime, security analysts say.
Al-Qaeda is also able to capitalize on the fact that Assad is a Shiite ruling over a majority Sunni country. Al-Qaeda is a mostly Sunni group that has capitalized on Sunni mistrust of Shiites.
"The Assad government has been in their cross hairs for a long time," said Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center, a think tank.
Al-Qaeda would probably leverage the chaos in Syria to establish a foothold there, security analysts say. "Al-Qaeda thrives on chaos," Riedel said.
Ayman al-Zawahri, the successor to Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda's global leader, favors operations that give the militant group territory, Rogers said.
"This is very much a Zawahri planning event," he said.
"Zawahri was always arguing, 'We need to go places to hold ground to get involved to stay there,' " Rogers said.
The presence of al-Qaeda in Syria would likely complicate any efforts to support opposition forces battling Assad's government. The Obama administration has not provided aid to the opposition, but has called for Assad to step down.
If arms were sent to the opposition "you can't guarantee whose hands they will end up in," Yacoubian said.