Kerry insists Syrian rebels are secular

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Despite evidence to the contrary, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate hearing Tuesday that Syria’s rebel forces are increasingly dominated by secular groups.

“It’s our judgment that — and the judgment of our good friends who actually know a lot of this in many ways better than we do because it’s their region, their neighborhood — … [that] the secular component of Syria will re-emerge” once the Syrian government is deposed, Kerry claimed in the hearing.

Those “good friends” are officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which are all religious and political enemies of Syria’s embattled dictatorship.

“I’m talking about the Saudis, the Emirates, the Qataris, the Turks, the Jordanians,” he said.

The democratic bonafides of Syria’s rebels are important. That’s because President Barack Obama’s planned intervention in Syria — following the Aug. 21 nerve gas attack on Syrians by the government — may weaken the dictatorship enough to help the rebels possibly impose an Islamic dictatorship.

Kerry dismissed numerous media reports from inside Syria that say the rebels are dominated by groups that are fundamentalist, fanatical, well-funded and increasingly entwined with al-Qaeda-style jihadi veterans.

The rebels “have changed significantly — they have improved, and as I said earlier, the fundamentals of Syria are secular, and I believe, will stay that way,” insisted Kerry, who served as a Massachusetts Senator for 28 years until he became Secretary of State.

Kerry’s claim echoes the much-ridiculed Feb. 2010 claim by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the multinational Muslim brotherhood is “largely secular.”

That claim was debunked when the brotherhood’s political candidates took full power in Egypt in 2012, and promptly imposed an Islamic constitution that imposed an apartheid-style legal regime on women, Christians and Jews.

There’s much evidence that the Syrian rebel coalition is dominated by the brotherhood and even more radical al-Qaeda groups.

For example, the director of the Syrian rebels’ political office is Louay Safi, a Syrian-American who worked for brotherhood-affiliated groups in the United States, according to his own resume and the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

The rebels’ political coalition is the Syrian National Council, which is now headed by a Saudi-backed Syrian, Ahmad Asi al-Jarba.

At the hearing, Kerry vouched for al-Jarba. “He is prepared to come here as soon as those meetings are over in order to meet with you, and you can have an opportunity to talk to President Jarba and meet with the opposition, have a much better sense of who they are,” Kerry told Senators during the hearing.

Last February, Syrian National Council members joined the brotherhood’s leading cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, at a pro-rebel public demonstration in Qatar’s capital city. In other speeches and sermons, Qaradawi has urged attacks on U.S. troops, said the Muslim god, Allah, had endorsed the murder of all Jews, and has said he wants to launch a suicide attack against Jews in Israel.

Since a 1963 coup, Syria’s government has been dominated for decades by a religious minority, the Alawites. The sect is a spin-off of the Shia sect of Islam, which is based in Iran.

Iran is the birthplace of Shia-style Islam, and it has sent weapons and soldiers to bolster Syria’s army.

But roughly 60 percent of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.

The five governments cited by Kerry are all dominated by the Sunni style of Islam, and are deeply antagonistic to Shia Islam and to Iran.

All are also autocracies, except for Turkey which is ruled by an increasingly hard-line Islamic government that has jailed journalists and opponents, and has sided with the now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The brotherhood espouses Sunni Islam, and denounces Shia Islam.

Kerry insisted that Syria has a history of secular government.

“Syria historically has been secular, and the vast majority of Syrians, I believe, want to remain secular,” said Kerry.

In fact, Syria was ruled by Islamic governments since 638, when the Byzantine army was defeated, up to 1918. That’s when the British army toppled the Turkish empire in World War 1.

The first partly-secular government was imposed by France after it took control of Syria in 1920.

The current government began as Arab socialist government in 1963 after the British forced the French out in 1946.

Three years after it seized power, a faction of the Arab socialist party led by Hafez al-Assad seized power. Al-Assad ruled Syria until his heath in 2010, when he was replaced by his son, Bashar al-Assad.

The al-Assads have ruled Syria’s Sunnis by combining an alliance of Alawites, semi-secular Sunnis, Christians and other minorities.

In 1982, the alliance survived a brotherhood-led rebellion in the city of Hama. Hafez al-Assad destroyed the rebellion by bombarding the city with heavy artillery, killing roughly 30,000 people.

Kerry said he was confident that a secular government would emerge from the current war, which has killed an estimated 100,000 people.

“The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to … an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular,” Kerry told Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.

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