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Al Qaeda influence complicates US approach to Syria

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Feb. 17, 2012: Anti-Syrian regime protesters hold banners and shout slogans during a demonstration in Idlib province in north Syria. (AP)

Iran is propping up Bashar Assad in Syria

An Al Qaeda affiliate is "extending its reach into Syria," possibly infiltrating the opposition as Al Qaeda's leader publicly endorses the anti-Assad movement. 

Yet Iran supposedly has consummated a "shotgun marriage" with Al Qaeda and is releasing Al Qaeda prisoners, in spite of its feelings for the Assad regime. 

The Middle East would appear more complicated than ever. 

These allegiances were all detailed this past week by the nation's top intelligence official. And, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta observed, the dynamic has made any decision about U.S. involvement in the region that much more difficult. 

If Al Qaeda is running around planting explosives in Syria, possibly without the opposition's knowledge, how can the U.S. know who to trust? 

"It does raise concerns for us that Al Qaeda is trying to assert a presence there, and that means that ... the situation there has become that much more serious as a result of that," Panetta said at a press conference. 

Asked whether the U.S. could support an opposition that includes Al Qaeda, Panetta said the U.S. would have to know more about the terror network's role before reaching a conclusion. "Just the fact that they're present concerns us. As to what their role is and how extensive their role is, I think that still remains to be seen," he said. 

Few regard it as a positive development. 

The Obama administration is trying to work with other countries on a new -- outside-the-United-Nations -- approach to the crisis in Syria. They're looking at humanitarian aid, as some lawmakers on Capitol Hill call for the U.S. to consider arming the opposition. 

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, though, told Congress on Thursday that the "complexities" of the opposition will affect any discussion about coming to the Syrians' aid. 

In a startling assessment, Clapper said that as the Iranians prop up Assad, extremists have infiltrated the opposition. 

Referring to recent deadly bombings in Syria against government buildings, he said they had "the earmarks of an Al Qaeda-like attack." 

"We believe that Al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria," Clapper said. 

At the same time, Clapper said Iran and Al Qaeda have had "to a certain extent, a shotgun marriage" -- though, ideologically speaking, Iran is Shia and Al Qaeda is Sunni. 

He explained that Iran has tolerated Al Qaeda while still preventing the network from operating out of Iran directly because they don't want to be an outright U.S. target. Rather, Clapper described Iran and Al Qaeda as being in a "shotgun marriage or a marriage of convenience." 

The details were inherently confusing. 

Iran is known as one of Assad's most important backers, yet is tangled up with a group fomenting chaos in Assad's country. 

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the situation is "curious." 

"(Iran has) a lot at stake in keeping that regime in power, and yet, Al Qaeda has apparently been carrying out attacks in Syria against the regime," Bolton said. 

But he cited speculation that "this is really a double game -- that Iran and Al Qaeda are cooperating to infiltrate the opposition." 

Bolton said Iran's interest clearly is in preserving the Assad regime, and that the country is "prepared to shed a lot of Syrian blood" to achieve that. "It wouldn't surprise me that they would turn to almost anybody for assistance to accomplish that objective," he said. 

Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst James Carafano said Al Qaeda is just trying to carve out a place in the next big battleground. 

"Al Qaeda's very opportunistic. Where they seen violence, they rush in there as an opportunity to take a stake," he said. 

Regardless of motive, the presence of Al Qaeda puts the U.S. and its allies in a difficult spot as they strategize on how to extract the intractable Assad from power -- presumably without western military force. 

After hearing Clapper's testimony Thursday, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., quoted a column from a prominent foreign policy analyst: "When interventionists become avenging angels, they blind themselves and the nation and run dangerously amuck. They plunge in with no plans, with half-baked plans, with demands to supply arms to rebels they know nothing about." 

The details about Iran's Al Qaeda connection also complicate the debate over Iran's nuclear program. 

Clapper described that relationship as an insurance policy of sorts against future aggression from the West. "The Iranians may think that they might use perhaps Al Qaeda in the future as a surrogate or proxy," Clapper said. 

Yet a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators came forward this week with a resolution ruling out any policy to "contain" -- rather than prevent -- an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. 

And Dan Gillerman, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said military intervention is "inevitable" if Iran does not turn back -- led by Israel if the United States does not act. 

"I would rather have the world condemn a living Israel than console a dead Israel. We will not wait for that to happen," he told Fox News. 

Amid the chaos in the region, Carafano said other nations should pursue humanitarian aid for the Syrian people. He pushed back on the idea of providing arms. 

"Getting arms and weapons in this part of the world ain't hard -- it's flooded with them," he said. 

Carafano, observing the myriad competing forces at work in the country, offered a warning. 

"Think of this as Iraq in a very small place," he said.

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