The woman whose opinion lawmakers are relying on to go to war in Syria is also a paid advocate for the war-torn country’s rebels.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged members of the House of Representatives to read a Wall Street Journal op-ed by 26-year-old Elizabeth O’Bagy — an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War — who asserted that concerns about extremists dominating among the Syrian rebels are unfounded.
“Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaida die-hards,” O’Bagy wrote for the Journal on Aug. 30. “Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces,” she wrote.
But in addition to her work for the Institute for the Study of War, O’Bagy is also the political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a group that advocates within the United States for Syria’s rebels — a fact that the Journal did not disclose in O’Bagy’s piece.
In an interview with The Daily Caller, O’Bagy said that despite her title as the group’s political director, she is paid as a contractor.
She insisted that she is not involved in the political lobbying that SETF does. “They kind of have two departments within the Task Force — one focused on working with the government on the Hill on advocacy and then the other working inside Syria and directly implementing government contracts,” she said.
O’Bagy’s relationship with SETF is a serious conflict of interest, according to David Reaboi, vice president for strategic communications at the Center for Security Policy.
“While there’s been a lot of worthwhile effort to expose activists considered pro-Assad or pro-Hezbollah — or, at least, to consider their analysis as coming from an interested party — O’Bagy seems to pass herself off as an impartial observer of the situation. Her access to Congress, intelligence services and to think tanks should be regarded as what it really is, which is a reflection of the Syrian rebels’ cause and aspirations,” Reaboi said.
In speaking with TheDC, O’Bagy regularly insisted that she was not a salaried employee of SETF, but a paid contractor acting in an advisory role.
“I’m the political director and aid coordinator, and that’s my official title at the organization, but that’s mostly because it provides me an opportunity to engage on humanitarian issues and to be a part of some of these larger government contracts going to humanitarian aid,” O’Bagy said.
The Foreign Policy news site reported in June that SETF “boasts extensive contacts with rebel commanders” and “spent months lobbying Congress, the State Department and the White House for everything from small arms to anti-tank and and anti-aircraft weapons to body armor to advanced communications equipment for the rebels.”
O’Bagy is quoted in the Foreign Policy piece saying that the Obama administration’s June decision to openly arm Syrian rebels didn’t go far enough. “Small arms and ammunition really only get you so far against airplanes,” she said then.
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.