Want to Know the Size of Syria’s Opposition Forces? Ask the Diplomat.

An image grab taken from a video shows an opposition fighter firing an rocket propelled grenade (RPG) on Aug. 26 during clashes with regime forces over the strategic area of Khanasser, situated on the only road linking Aleppo to central Syria. (SALAH AL-ASHKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

If a United States senator wants to learn the size of the rebel force in a nation where the executive branch wants to launch military strikes, it turns out he has to ask not the top US civilian nor uniformed officials but…a diplomat. That’s what happened on Tuesday.

When Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., asked about the size of the opposition force, an eyebrow-raising thing happened. The Pentagon leaders, well, weren’t much help.

It was one among a number of awkward moments during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on a resolution authorizing force against Syria. Johnson asked about the size of the rebel forces when he was finishing a line of questioning for Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey about opposition elements.

Here’s how the exchange went down, according to a transcript compiled by our friends at CQ:

JOHNSON: Secretary Hagel, do you have a feel for the number of the members of the opposition? I mean, how large is their force?

HAGEL: I — I don’t know the numbers. Our intelligence communities have estimates of those numbers, but I think, as Secretary Kerry said, the momentum has shifted in the opinion of our intelligence community and others who are close to the situation, whereas…

Johnson seemed a bit dismayed and very unimpressed.

I’m kind of a numbers guy. Gen. Dempsey, do you know the core strength of the rebel forces?”

Uh, nope.

DEMPSEY: I don’t have them committed to memory, Senator.

This was the moment reporters and audience members began exchanging glances. Multiple reporters at my press table grimaced. But it only got worse.

JOHNSON: But we — we have them? I can get the…

DEMPSEY: Yeah, the intelligence community has that available…

JOHNSON: And do you also have…

DEMPSEY: We’ll make it available tomorrow.

After the nation’s top military officials were unable to weigh in, its top diplomat — who had a much sharper, though uneven, performance than his Pentagon counterparts — swooped in with some, you know, numbers for the self-described “numbers guy,” whose vote the Obama administration might need.

KERRY: I think we need to talk about that in our classified session. But let me just say to you that in terms of the opposition numbers, you see ranges up to 80,000, 90,000, 100,000 in total opposition. You see ranges from — well, I don’t want to go into all the numbers, but in the tens of thousands in terms of operative active combatants.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett