Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Syria’s big IF

The US is looking for new partners in Syria, but these may not necessarily be willing to toe Washington’s line, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Tired of talking to a fractious and bickering opposition, the Americans are now looking for another partner in Syria.

The US State Department says it wishes to hold talks with the largest Islamist group in Syria. The Islamic Front (IF), an umbrella organisation made up of several fighting groups with nearly 60,000 men under arms, seem to be an unlikely negotiation partner for the Americans, but US officials do not seem bothered by the prospect.

There is only one glitch: the IF does not seem interested in talking to the Americans. Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, has made several attempts to meet IF leaders, but the latter have declined to see him without giving any explanation.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US was interested in talking to Syrian Islamist militants, in order to learn more about their intentions regarding the ongoing civil war and the role of Al-Qaeda affiliates in the country.

Washington, he added, wished to know if the militant Islamist groups were going to opt for moderation or more radicalism.

The IF was formed nearly a month ago through the merger of Syrian opposition groups in a political front with an Islamist orientation. Its declared goal is to bring down the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and create an Islamist state.

The IF calls itself “an independent political, military, and social entity.” So far, it has not created any political organisation to speak on its behalf, and its military structure is murky.

If it starts talking to the Americans, the IF is more likely to discuss military issues than political ones. It is also questionable whether the IF can furnish the Americans with an alternative to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), which had been the main interlocutor with Washington so far.

Most likely, the Americans are looking for some common ground with the IF on which to build momentum toward a political settlement.

There is one thing the Americans and the IF have in common, which is their shared animosity towards Al-Qaeda affiliates, especially the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On the Al-Nusrah Front, the two would disagree, as the IF seems to be willing to cooperate with that group, which the Americans distrust.

The IF does not see the Al-Nusrah Front as a strategic ally, but it is willing to work with it on the grounds that it is a “patriotic movement with no record of terror attacks.”

What makes an IF-American deal unlikely is that the IF does not see a point in convoking Geneva II, the peace conference which the Americans and the Russians have been trying to organise for months.

IF leaders believe that any political overture towards the Al-Assad regime is bound to fail. Instead of wasting time in diplomacy, the IF has promised to bring down the regime by force.

This is a problem for the Americans, who fear that without the support of the IF, the outcome of Geneva II will be hard to enforce. The ability of the other Syrian armed groups to make a political deal stick is also questionable at the moment.

NCSROF official Monzir Aqbiq said that most armed groups fighting against the regime would accept any political deal that “brings down the dictatorship of Al-Assad and launches a genuine transfer of power.”

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Aqbiq added that a minority of militants may oppose a political deal, but this minority “could be dealt with by the interim governing body emanating from Geneva II.”

Other opposition members disagree with this view, saying that the NCSROF cannot make a deal stick, since it only has the loyalty of one section of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which controls perhaps one-fifth of all the armed opposition groups.

Fawwaz Tallo, an independent opposition figure, said that US was not interested in meeting the Syrian opposition half way, but in manipulating them to promote its own agenda.

Speaking to the Weekly, Tallo argued that when the Americans met with any opposition groups, military or political, their main focus was always on “propagating their own views”.

According to Tallo, the Americans want to “abort the Syrian revolution” by dragging it into a futile compromise with the regime. Washington, he said, was only interested in “a deal that maintains the regime’s sectarian control of the country’s military and security structures.”

If the Americans began talking to the IF, their focus would be on dragging it into negotiations that suited the American agenda, he pointed out. “The Americans want everyone to be their lackey,” Tallo stated. He said that the IF must remain independent, while distancing itself from the radical groups.

“The IF leaders lack political experience and don’t seem interested in forming political partnerships... but the Americans are dying to get them on board the Geneva arrangements,” Tallo said.

Walid Al-Binni, former ambassador and a member of the NSCROF, was of the view that Geneva II should be postponed for now. Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Binni said that “the political opposition alone cannot achieve anything. But the entire opposition, armed groups included, can achieve some of the revolution’s objectives.”

At present, Geneva II seems to be at a crossroads, with the Americans and the Russians trying to bring many groups with conflicting agendas together for talks that no credible force is willing to guarantee.

The regime for its part sees Geneva II as a way of creating a formula by which both the regime and the opposition would be able to gang up against Al-Qaeda affiliates.

The IF, now the dominant military force fighting the regime, is not willing to make deals with the regime. It says that it can fight both the regime and the Al-Qaeda affiliates simultaneously, or at least bring the regime down first and then cleanse the country of foreign radicals.

The Syrian regime has to a large degree succeeded in convincing the West that the Syrian revolution is taking in too many terror-minded groups. This is why the international community stopped short of punishing the regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons, and focused on scrapping these weapons instead.

As a result of the regime’s allegations, the US has also weakened the Free Syrian Army by depriving it of sophisticated weaponry.

The IF’s absence of reliance on US support or weaponry has thus turned it into Syria’s foremost credible foe of the Al-Assad regime — as well as a potential power broker of the country’s future.

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