Syrian President Bashar Assad and US President Barack Obama© AFP 2013
Mike Morell, former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)© CBS News
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WASHINGTON, September 16 (RIA Novosti) – A rebel coup against Syrian President Bashar Assad could boost al-Qaida’s influence in the violence-plagued nation and transform it into a safe haven for terrorists, a former senior US intelligence official said.
“I fear the breakup of the state of Syria, collapse of the central government, sectarian warfare, opportunity for al-Qaida to have a safe haven in Syria that is not dissimilar to the safe haven that it once enjoyed in Afghanistan,” Mike Morell, former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said in an interview aired Sunday on the CBS television network show “60 Minutes.”
The comments echoed concerns expressed by Russia over US support – including military aid – to the Syrian opposition, which Moscow says is teeming with Islamist extremists that could rise to power if Assad is toppled.
Washington has conceded that there is an al-Qaida influence among the Syrian rebels but that its support is designed to filter out extremists and empower moderate elements in the opposition.
Morell’s interview Sunday came a day after the United States and Russia announced they had agreed on a plan to place the Assad government’s chemical weapons stockpile under international control for eventual destruction.
In the interview, Morell said the administration of US President Barack Obama faces a precarious balancing act in trying to strengthen the Syrian rebels enough to pressure Assad to the negotiating table but not to the point that the opposition feels it does not have to negotiate a political settlement.
“The best outcome is a negotiated settlement between the opposition and between the regime that allows for a political transition that keeps the institutions of the state intact,” Morell said.
Keeping the Syrian military and the Syrian security services intact in a transition will be crucial to fighting al-Qaida in the country, he added.
“And every day that goes by, every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded,” Morell said.
Washington has accused Assad’s government of carrying out an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that it claims left more than 1,400 dead. The Obama administration has repeatedly said Assad cannot be part of any future Syrian government, a condition Russia has repeatedly rejected as an unacceptable intrusion on the sovereignty of its longtime ally in the Middle East.
Morell served for more than three decades in the CIA, twice as its acting director, prior to his retirement last month.
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