Think tank fires Syria analyst Kerry cited to support claims about moderate rebels

Jonathan S. Landay

A Syria researcher whose work was cited last week by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain in arguing for U.S. military strikes on that country has been fired for lying that she had a doctoral degree, the policy institute for which she worked announced Wednesday.

“The Institute for the Study of War has learned and confirmed that, contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy does not in fact have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University,” the group said in an online statement. “ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O’Bagy’s employment, effective immediately.”

O’Bagy’s termination followed a controversy that erupted last week when it emerged that in addition to being an institute analyst, she worked for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a non-profit group that lobbies for U.S. support for Syrian rebel forces.

The controversy arose after an opinion piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal said that, contrary to news reports, the Syrian opposition isn’t dominated by al Qaida-linked groups. Moderate groups, she wrote, have made significant gains in some areas and deserve outside military aid. The assertions were greeted with skepticism by other Syria experts.

The article identified her only by her institute affiliation, but the Journal later acknowledged that she also was the task force’s political director. The Journal described the group as providing “aid to the Syrian opposition” under contracts with the U.S. and British governments.

Kerry and McCain, R-Ariz., cited O’Bagy’s piece during congressional hearings last week in response to questions about whether missile strikes on Syria might empower al Qaida-affiliated fighters in the rebel movement.

News organizations, including McClatchy, have quoted O’Bagy, 26, scores of times as an independent expert on Syria, citing her role at the institute. A fluent Arabic speaker who has made numerous trips into Syria, she’s told reporters she is in almost daily contact with defected Syrian Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Military Council.

After Kerry and McCain quoted her op-ed piece, McClatchy last week queried the institute and O’Bagy about her doctorate after a reporter was unable to find her dissertation on ProQuest, an online information database that maintains a massive repository of such work.

In a subsequent email exchange, O’Bagy wrote that she’d authored a dissertation titled “With Both Rifle and Child: The Role of Female Militancy in Islamic Societies,” and she attached the first chapter. She added that she was “talking to some publishers about possibly turning it into a book.”

O’Bagy also wrote that her work with the Syrian Emergency Task Force “is completely separate from their lobbying efforts and I only work on civilian governance and humanitarian aid projects.”

Politico, the online news site, quoted O’Bagy as saying in an interview Monday that she’d attended a dual masters and doctorate program at Georgetown University and that she was waiting for the awarding of her doctorate after submitting and successfully defending the dissertation.

An email request to the Institute for the Study of War for comment was not answered.

By Jonathan S. Landay
McClatchy Washington Bureau