Day 1,106: "Are you a good rebel or a bad rebel?"



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Today is Day 1,105 of the Syria conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, because he's not fighting enough battles of his own at the moment, has promised military action should Syrian militants of either side target the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. (The tomb is technically Turkish territory within Syria, and has its own guard.)

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has told the UN half of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles have been removed.

And the US State Department yesterday, admitting that the Syrian peace talks in Geneva had stalled, offered some clues about the US position in the testimony of Anne W. Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, titled "Syria After Geneva: Next Steps for US Policy."

Patterson said that the United States is currently "working to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition" while "organizing [itself] to address the growing challenge of violent extremist fighters in Syria." In other words, there are two kinds of rebels, according to the US government: good rebels and bad rebels. The US would like to help the good rebels and contain the bad rebels.

What's interesting, however, is the implication in Patterson's testimony that this is actually possible. Last July, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said that the US was having difficulty distinguishing "good guys" from "bad guys" in Syria.

In September, pushing back against fears that rebels were now dominating the fight in Syria, a sanguine Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that extremists made up only 15 to 25 percent of the Syrian opposition, and that the opposition "has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership."

But even at that point, as online publication The Wire pointed out, Kerry's picture was at odds with that painted by intelligence sources, who also suggested that the extremist camps were growing more quickly than the moderate ones.

Patterson in her testimony stuck, however, to roughly Kerry's ratio, although the overall estimates of the number of fighters in Syria have gone up, as has the extremist percentage range, slightly: Patterson said that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has estimated that there are "nearly 23,000 violent extremist fighters in Syria ... represent[ing] a minority of the total rebel ranks inside Syria, which are estimated to be between 75,000-110,000 fighters." So that's saying that roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of the opposition fighters in Syria are extremists, up from the 15-25 percent range Kerry gave in September.

Here, for context, is a rather more pessimistic take from one of The Washington Post's correspondents in Beirut.

The conflict continues.