By Elise Labott, reporting from Aspen, Colorado
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum. which took place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance was a media sponsor of the event.
Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are gaining strength in Syria, giving an edge to extremists in the country, a top military intelligence official said Saturday.
David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Aspen Security Forum that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has publicly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, have been the most successful in operations against troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
"It is very clear over the last two years they have grown in size, grown in capability and ruthlessly grown in effectiveness. Their ability to take the fight to the regime and Hezbollah in a very direct way has been, among those groups, the most effective," he said.
Left unchecked, he said, more radical elements of the opposition would have a greater role, eclipsing moderates in a post-Assad Syria. "They will not go home when it is over," Shedd said. "They will fight for that space. They are there for the long haul."
Shedd said at least 1,200 rebel factions have been identified in Syria. The U.S. ability to distinguish "good guys" from "bad guys" inside Syria was limited, but it was critical to do so in order to determine which groups to support, he said.
Shedd said that the core al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan is providing "spiritual direction" to its affiliates in Syria and "has been far more active publicly with the leadership" of those groups. "There is a flow of fighters into Syria that come from that side of the world," he said.
Shedd said one option could see al-Assad relocating to the largely Alawite area along the Northern coast, creating an enclave and leaving opposition groups fighting to gain control of Syrian territory.
He voiced concern about the Syrian civil war spilling over into neighboring Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, where he predicted the government there could fall in a post-Assad Syria.
Fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq, Shedd said, are also getting valuable battlefield experience in Syria and could return home to Iraq to create further trouble.
On Afghanistan, Shedd cautioned against leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, warning the capacity of the Afghan army and police, while improved over the past several years, remains fragile.
Senior U.S. officials have said President Barack Obama was considering a withdrawal to the "zero option," leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the planned deadline of 2014.
"I'm very concerned that if it were to go to zero, there would be a much greater fallback to the old ways and challenges with the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces)," Shedd said.
He said the Afghan forces still need training on gathering intelligence and implementing it on the battlefield, calling the bilateral security agreement for the United States to train and equip the Afghan forces being negotiated between the two countries "critical."