Alarmed at the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the U.S. government is hoping to encourage a newly-formed Islamist alliance, the Islamic Front, to join the shaky U.S.-backed mainstream coalition before a long-delayed conference aimed at ending the civil war convenes in Switzerland next month.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the U.S. and others “want to broaden the base of moderate opposition and to broaden the base of representation of the Syrian people in the Geneva II negotiation.”
Speaking during a visit to the Philippines, Kerry said the U.S. government had yet to meet with the Islamic Front, but that it was possible a “discussion” could take place.
The U.S. and other countries involved in the process wanted “to make sure that the delegation that goes to Geneva will be as broadly representative as possible of the legitimate oppositionists who could be acceptable at that table,” he said. “That obviously does not include the radical extremists and the worst elements that are to some degree on the ground.”
The two main al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, al-Nusra and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have been growing in strength. Kerry conceded in an ABC News interview on Sunday that “al-Qaeda has greater clout there [inside Syria] than it had before, and it’s an increasing threat.”
The groups making up the Islamic Front are not openly linked to-Qaeda, and so there are no legal barriers for U.S. officials to meet with it.
“We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they’re not designated terrorists,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Monday, describing it as “an alliance of prominent Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition.” (On Tuesday Harf said there were “no meetings to announce” yet.)
Nonetheless the Islamic Front, a Saudi-backed alliance of seven groups boasting tens of thousands of fighters, is ideologically committed to an Islamic state – not a secular democracy – in a post-Assad Syria.
Furthermore, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal reported on Tuesday that some key figures in the Islamic Front do in fact have strong al-Qaeda links, identifying a key member of the Islamic Front’s biggest constituent group, Ahrar al-Sham, as a former al-Qaeda courier who “today serves as Ayman al Zawahiri’s representative in the Levant.”
Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist entity which includes many foreign fighters, is viewed as one of the most effective and well-armed fighting rebel groups in Syria, along with al-Nusra and ISIS.
Last week, Islamic Front fighters seized control of U.S.-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) warehouses in northern Syria, prompting the U.S. to suspend shipments of non-lethal aid to the area. The State Department attributed the suspension to security concerns, saying it did not signal a lessening of support for the FSA.
Still, coming on the back of its losses of territory to radical rebel groups the incident deepened concerns about the FSA’s viability at the worst possible time, as the U.S. and others are working on preparations for the peace conference scheduled to begin January 22.
The aim of the conference dubbed Geneva II (although for logistical reasons it will be held some 50 miles from Geneva, in Montreaux) is to implement a peace plan drawn up by world powers in June 2012. That plan calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria on the basis of “mutual consent” between regime and rebel representatives.
Having an opposition delegation viewed as effective and broadly representative is obviously crucial to the gathering’s success. But apart from the FSA’s problems on the ground, the main Syrian National Coalition (SNC) remains split over who should represent the opposition at the conference.
At the same time, the regime has been gaining momentum on the battleground since the middle of the year, strengthening its hand ahead of the talks and lessening the likelihood that President Bashar Assad will agree to step down – however much Kerry insists that he must.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the weekend expressed doubts about the conference outcome, saying the moderate SNC/FSA opposition was “in serious difficulty.”
Asked about Fabius’ pessimistic assessment, Kerry said there was no alternative but to work for the conference’s success.
“Nobody’s ever suggested it’s going to be easy,” he said. “It is very difficult and it’s not going to happen that rapidly. But the alternative is far worse than fighting to get to the table to have a negotiation and have a negotiated resolution. And I will continue to push for that as well as others because we believe that’s the only solution to the problem of Syria.”