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Syria: Kerry says US may meet with Islamist rebel group - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon as he takes position in Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district on December 4, 2013. (Reuters/Saad AboBrahim)

A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon as he takes position in Aleppo’s Karm Al-Jabal district on December 4, 2013. (Reuters/Saad AboBrahim)

London/Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated on Tuesday that the US was willing to meet with members of the Syrian opposition’s Islamic Front, despite the US and UK freezing aid to Syrian rebels after the group took control of opposition warehouses on the Turkish–Syrian border.

The US, together with the UK, halted its provision of non-lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) last week, after its warehouses on the Turkish border were seized by Islamic Front fighters.

Although the Islamic Front does not include any groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda like the Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has called the creation of an Islamic state in Syria, raising fears in the West.

Speaking at a news conference during a visit to the Phillipines, Kerry said: “The United States has not met to date with the Islamic Front . . . but it’s possible it could take place.”

He added: “There is an effort afoot among all of the supporting nations of the Syrian opposition to want to broaden the base of the moderate opposition and broaden the base of representation of the Syrian people in the Geneva II negotiations.”

Sources within the Syrian opposition speaking on the condition of anonymity told Asharq Al-Awsat that US officials were making great efforts to arrange a high-level meeting in Istanbul between American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and representatives of the Islamic Front, with the assistance of diplomats on the Syria desk at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The sources said direct and indirect contacts were taking place and may lead to a result. They added that the meeting was delayed due to the Islamic Front’s fear of accusations by extremist opposition groups that it was “cooperating with the West” if it meets with US officials.

Some FSA members have criticized the US freeze on aid, saying it risked marginalizing the moderate elements of the opposition and allowing extremists to grow in influence.

However, the increased tension in the field between the FSA and the Islamic Front has not prompted the political opposition to sever its links with Islamic Front factions. A member of the Syrian National Council, Abdelrahman Al-Haj, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “all opposition forces see the Islamic Front as part of the revolutionary forces who are trying to topple the Syrian regime.”

Haj added that “contacts are continuing between the opposition and the Islamic Front, especially that most of its constituents are former FSA members.” He said the Islamic Front “expressed its objection to the mechanism of distributing arms based on the FSA’s command, providing large quantities of arms to factions who were affiliated to international parties.”

Haj added that “negotiations took place to restructure the Chiefs of Staff, but the Islamic Front’s demands were too high, resulting in the failure to reach agreement.”

He denied that the Islamic Front “objected to the person of the commander of the Chiefs of Staff of the FSA, General Salim Idris.” However, he said they objected to leading figures who were responsible for coordination between the Chiefs of Staff and the military factions.

The Islamic Front, formed from several Islamist opposition groups inside Syria in late November, announced it was withdrawing from the FSA’s command structure four days before it occupied the FSA warehouses at Bab Al-Hawa, on the Syrian–Turkish border, adding to concerns that the FSA was becoming less and less influential both in and outside Syria.

One rebel, a former officer in the Syrian army who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “What saddens me at this time is that achievements are attributed to the fighting brigades with no mention of the Free Syrian Army, which represents all Syrians, and whose Chiefs of Staff includes most fighting factions, except the extremist Islamist factions.”

This trend, he added, “was proof that the role of the FSA has become marginal,” adding that this has “contributed to fragmenting the opposition military, which was founded to confront the Syrian regime.”

Colonel Ahmad Hijazi, a former chief of staff of the FSA who joined the Islamists, said the reality of the Islamists was misrepresented, adding that they are “not the ghouls who would destroy everyone–even if there are some exceptions–because they are part of the Syrian people.”

He accused some of the commanders of the FSA of “responsibility for the erosion of the FSA’s role,” and that “we warned about this from the start, and it has happened.”

Hijazi blamed the disappearance of the first generation of the field commanders on the election of the Chiefs of Staff in Antalya, which resulted in the election of General Salim Idris as chief of staff. He said: “Our position was clear that armies are not built by elections like parliaments, because they do not have military ranks.” He said this was “a coup against us, to exclude us, and it look a lot like the coup by the Ba’ath Party in 1963.”

Six of the seven groups that make up the Islamic Front signed a joint statement with other factions at the end of October, in which it announced that the planned peace conference on the Syrian conflict, dubbed “Geneva II,” was a conspiracy and warned that participants would face trial on charges of treason before revolutionary courts.

Haj, however, said: “The Islamic Front agreed to participate in the conference due to be held at the end of January in order to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis, but it was objecting to the current circumstances in Syria, which are not helpful to holding a conference.”

Haj, who is an expert on Islamist groups, said: “The United States is showing flexibility in coordinating with the Islamic Front and engaging in dialogue with it, and agrees to its participation in the Geneva II Conference.”

He also pointed out that the Syrian National Coalition, the largest umbrella organization of Syrian opposition groups, did not object to the Islamic Front’s participation “because it considers it to be on the same side as the coalition.” The Islamic Front expressed in its charter its “willingness to deal with international parties as long as they did not show any enmity or hostility towards it,” he added.

Haj denied that any links existed between the Islamic Front and the Al-Qaeda organization despite “using some tactics and military experiences for which Al-Qaeda was known.” He pointed to the comments by an Islamic Front leader that they would not fight Al-Qaeda as being a “tactical comment” to avoid starting a war with extremist organizations that are linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Al-Nusra Front.

Haj did not deny “the presence of Salafists among the Islamic Front, which has a clear Islamist leaning and which announced in its charter that it wanted to establish an Islamic state.”

He said the Islamic Front would not impose its vision on the other constituents because it fights to topple the regime, unlike ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which are fighting to build a model of an Islamic state. He added that he expects some clashes between the Islamic Front, ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in the near future.