Gen. Martin Dempsey said he remains concerned about Islamic extremist groups among the opposition in Syria but the United States and its allies are getting a clearer picture of the moderate groups they support. (Karen Bleier / AFP)
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — America’s top military officer said he remains concerned about Islamic extremist groups among the opposition in Syria but the United States and its allies are getting a clearer picture of the moderate groups they support.
“I am concerned about the potential that the extremist ideologies will hijack what started out to be a kind of a popular movement to overthrow an oppressive regime,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday.
He said the United States and its allies are improving their understanding of moderate groups, which will help facilitate supporting them. “I think we are in a better position than we were six months ago in that regard of understanding the various players and their motivations,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey made the remarks on the first day of a four-day trip to Israel and Jordan. The trip comes against a backdrop of mounting concerns in the region, including a two-year-old war in Syria, turmoil in Egypt, worries about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a growing threat from al-Qaida in Yemen.
Among the most difficult challenges is Syria, where a revolt against President Bashar Assad has turned into a deep sectarian conflict that has left 100,000 people dead and threatens to spill outside its borders.
Fighting in Syria continues to seesaw. Recently, Assad’s forces have made headway against rebel groups, particularly in Homs, a strategic city in western Syria. Rebels are gaining ground in the north, said Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defense Intelligence Agency official.
Hopes of a quick solution seem to have faded. Even the departure of Assad could leave the country in turmoil.
“This is a regional conflict that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad,” Dempsey said. “It’s the unleashing of historic ethnic, religious and tribal animosities.
“Even if the Assad regime were to fail tomorrow, the issues that fueled it will persist for some time,” Dempsey said.
“It will take a great deal of work and a great deal of time to resolve,” he said. “We really do have to take a longer view than perhaps sometimes are discussed in certain circles.”
In Washington, some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz,, have urged the administration to take stronger action, including the establishment of a no-fly zone, to aid the rebels.
The White House said recently it would boost a range of support, including weapons, for the moderate opposition. Rebel leaders have complained that the weapons have been slow in getting to opposition fighters.
Some analysts say radical Islamist groups, such as the al Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated opposition force, remain dominant among the opposition in Syria, complicating efforts to support groups fighting Assad.
“They are the vanguard of the revolution in the military sense,” White said of the Islamic groups.