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Growth of Foreign Fighters in Syria “A Credible Threat”

As the United States was contemplating a military strike last year in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against regime opposition forces, much of the debate centered on the composition of those opposition forces. During a Pentagon news conference on June 26, 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Syria “a constant process of assessment.” On April 16, the U.S. military commander of the area of operations that includes Syria continued that process.

“If you kind of look at the elements of the problem, there’s chemical weapons involved, there’s significant proxy activity ongoing in that country, there’s sectarian issues, and, if you took one of those things on its own, it would make for a very complicated set of affairs, or issue. But if you combine all of that, then it makes it really, really tough. And you layer on top of that this issue of extremist activity that we’ve seen grow in that country – it’s very concerning.”

Speaking at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF’s) GEOINT 2013* Symposium, delayed 6 months by the government shutdown, U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM’s) Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III used his keynote to outline the growing complexity of Syria. “As I look at the Syrian problem, I gotta tell you that this is the most complex problem I’ve seen in the short, almost 39 years that I’ve been doing this. If you kind of look at the elements of the problem, there’s chemical weapons involved, there’s significant proxy activity ongoing in that country, there’s sectarian issues, and, if you took one of those things on its own, it would make for a very complicated set of affairs, or issue. But if you combine all of that, then it makes it really, really tough. And you layer on top of that this issue of extremist activity that we’ve seen grow in that country – it’s very concerning,” said Austin.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) addressed the GEOINT 2013* Symposium in Tampa, Fla., on April 16. In his keynote, Austin outlined the growth of foreign fighters in Syria and the threat that poses to the United States. USGIF photo

Austin, who assumed command of CENTCOM on March 22, 2013, illustrated the proliferation of foreign fighters. “You know, when I took command about a year ago, we were talking about 800 to 1,000 foreign fighters being in that country,” Austin said. “Now, the intelligence community would characterize that foreign fighter threat as being somewhere between 7,000 to 8,000, which means it’s grown by orders of magnitude in one year.”

“You know, when I took command about a year ago, we were talking about 800 to 1,000 foreign fighters being in that country,” Austin said. “Now, the intelligence community would characterize that foreign fighter threat as being somewhere between 7,000 to 8,000, which means it’s grown by orders of magnitude in one year.”

Austin echoed the warnings of Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who in March attributed the burgeoning numbers of foreign fighters heading to Syria as turning that conflict into “a matter of homeland security.”

“It is a credible threat,” said Austin. “If extremists are left to operate and plan in an ungoverned space, we know what the outcome will be. Soon they will begin to export mischief to the rest of the region and to Western Europe and eventually to our homeland. And so for us, this is a vital interest. In order to protect our homeland we have to make sure we stay focused on this problem.”

Satellite Imagery of Syria

Satellite imagery showing artillery belonging to regime forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Rastan, Syria, June 10, 2012. The U.S. intelligence community has tracked the devolution of the conflict in Syria from a two-sided civil war into one involving a number of networks. U.S. Department of State photo

As the conflict in Syria has progressed, it has broken down from being a two-sided war into one that is increasingly difficult for the intelligence community to follow, Austin said. “We’ve gone from tracking large formations of opposing forces to networks of enemy, which is much more challenging, to almost individuals, which is enormously challenging for our intel community. Unless you have participated in that kind of challenging endeavor, you don’t understand it,” said Austin.

“We’ve gone from tracking large formations of opposing forces to networks of enemy, which is much more challenging, to almost individuals, which is enormously challenging for our intel community.”

The GEOINT conference, which brings together elements of the intelligence community, provided Austin a forum in which to outline some of the intelligence needs for CENTCOM in regard to Syria. “In terms of our intel capabilities, we have begun to focus on this in earnest. There’s a lot more that needs to be done, and I think every intelligence professional would agree with that. And we’re working that, but this again is a very troubling problem for us, one we are going to work with our allies in the region to try to contain. And so, we remain focused on it.”

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...