By Jamie Crawford
High levels of sectarianism, carnage and the overall grinding nature of Syria's civil war continue to make that country a top destination for extremists, a top U.S. official said.
"Syria has become the pre-eminent location for al Qaeda-aligned groups to recruit, to train and to equip what is now a growing number of extremists, some of who seek to conduct external attacks," Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a congressional hearing on Thursday.
"From a terrorism perspective, the most disturbing element is that al Qaeda has declared Syria its most critical front," he said.
Olsen testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet about the crisis in Syria and the ongoing standoff with Russia over the situation in Ukraine.
Foreign fighters attracted to the Syrian battleground "represent a long-term threat to U.S. national security interests," Burns said while likening the environment to an "incubator for extremism" on both sides of the Sunni and Shiite sectarian divide.
And the changing nature and de-centralized shift from large-scale plotting by al Qaeda also remains a cause for concern, the officials said.
"These less sophisticated plots are often more difficult for us to detect and disrupt, and that puts even greater pressure on us to work closely with our partners," Olsen said.
There are also concerns over the travel patterns of foreign fighters to and from Syria, particularly those from western countries that have become a priority for officials across U.S. national security agencies to follow.
"We are working together to gather every single piece of information we can about the identities of these individuals," Olsen said.
With the Syrian conflict nearing the beginning of its fourth year, senators from both parties pushed Burns for clarification on the Obama administration's support for the moderate opposition, and its goal of political transition away from the rule of Bashar al-Assad.
Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said the administration's policy was not as "robust' as it could be in his view, while the top Republican on the panel, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, criticized the "festering" nature of the situation that allows foreign extremists to proliferate inside Syria.
"It is a disaster of great proportions," Corker said.
"We understand the urgency" of the situation, Burns said while adding the administration is "looking at a range of options" it can take unilaterally and with international allies to bolster support for the moderate opposition in Syria.
Burns added that he believed that 35 percent of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile would be removed from the country next week as part of an international agreement.
But he added the "foot dragging" of the process by the al-Assad regime was "deeply frustrating."