Kerry and other lawmakers — including Sen. John McCain — have relied on O’Bagy’s assessments while calling for an American military intervention in Syria. McCain even traveled with O’Bagy to Syria in May.
“A woman by the name of Elizabeth Bagly, B-A-G-L-Y, just wrote an article,” Kerry said in congressional testimony Wednesday — spelling O’Bagy’s name wrong — “she works with the Institute of War. She’s fluent in Arabic and spent an enormous amount of time studying the opposition and studying Syria. She just published this the other day. Very interesting [Wall Street Journal] article, which I commend to you.”
“I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys,” Kerry concluded.
Kerry made the same argument before the Senate on Tuesday.
“The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation,” Kerry told Sen. Ron Johnson, “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.”
But on Thursday morning, Reuters called out Kerry’s — and by extension, O’Bagy’s — assessment as “at odds with estimates by U.S. and European intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts, who say Islamic extremists remain by far the fiercest and best-organized rebel elements.”
In December, O’Bagy opposed the Obama administration’s attempts to designate al-Nusra — a powerful Syrian rebel group — as a terror organization because of its ties to al-Qaida.
“I’m not saying they aren’t a terrorist group. But given the circumstances and given their cooperation with the opposition as a whole, designating them now would be disastrous,” O’Bagy said to McClatchy newspapers in December 2012.
In April 2013, al-Nusra pledged loyalty to al-Qaida.
O’Bagy told TheDC that she had opposed the terrorist designation because she feared it would damage the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship.
“The point that I was trying to make in terms of al-Nusra being designated a terrorist organization was that at the time they had been embraced to a large degree by certain aspects of the population and they were very much seen as fighting for the cause,” she said. “I knew that designating them as a terrorist organization would have a very radicalizing impact on the ground. I wasn’t sure if that trend could be reversed. I was terrified that this could be an irreversible process of radicalization.”
O’Bagy told TheDC that she was wrong to consider al-Nusra anything but a terror group.
“I can admit when I’m wrong. In many ways al-Nusra has revealed its true face and many see it as a foreign influence and an outside group… Designating them a terrorist group has helped empower more moderate groups,” she said.
But O’Bagy blames the United States’ lack of support for the increased role of such al-Qaida affiliated groups.
The “failure of America to help the Syrian people” is what is “pushing” Syrian rebels “into the arms” of extremists, she said.
“If the moderate forces are going to be successful, if they are going to maintain their ability to leverage any sort of influence, then they need to be supported and they need to be empowered. If they are not able to respond to these attacks, the rebels [will join the extremists who] are better resourced, better equipped, actually willing to respond directly to these chemical weapons attacks,” O’Bagy said.