US to negotiate with Syria's al-Qaeda-linked rebels

US to negotiate with Syria's al-Qaeda-linked rebels
Sat Dec 14, 2013 22:56:58

American officials in Turkey plan to hold talks with Syrian rebel commanders from the al-Qaeda-linked so-called ‘Islamic Front’ which seized control of bases belonging to Western-backed militants last week.

Syrian opposition sources are cited as saying on Saturday that the upcoming contacts between Washington and the terrorist militants reflect the extent to which the Islamic Front alliance has eclipsed the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, which Western and Arab powers tried in vain to build into a force able to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

The talks could also decide the future direction of the Islamic Front, which is engaged in a standoff with the even more radical Takfiri militants of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Akhbar and other news outlets reported Saturday.

A rebel source with the so-called Islamic Front asserted that he expects the talks in Turkey to discuss whether the United States would help arm the front and assign to it the responsibility for maintaining order in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

Although the anonymous source did not offer further details, diplomatic sources in Turkey stated that Washington’s Syria envoy Robert Ford was expected in Istanbul soon but his schedule was not yet confirmed.

The Islamic Front, formed by the unification of six major Islamist groups last month, seized control a week ago of weapons stores nominally under the control of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Command (SMC).

It has since said it was asked to take over the base by the SMC to protect it from attack by the more extremist and Saudi-linked ISIL terrorist group. Whether or not the move was requested, it demonstrated how little power the Western-backed SMC wields in the rebel-held regions of Syria.

An SMC insurgent commander further said he had been told the Islamic Front would hold talks with US officials in Turkey in the coming days.

The infighting and rivalries among the rebels have undermined their foreign-sponsored efforts against the Syrian government.

The destructive war effort has also reduced entire city districts across Syria to rubble, causing tens of billions of dollars in damages, driven 2 million refugees to seek safety abroad and made millions more homeless and vulnerable to a winter storm which has covered the region in snow and biting rain.

The Islamic Front rebel source further explained that his group’s rivalry with the ISIL had already led to a spate of hostage-taking between the two sides, and that the Front's decision to talk to the Americans had further escalated existing tensions.

Although he described the two al-Qaeda-linked radical forces as ideologically close, he said ISIL appeared set on confrontation, perhaps encouraged by some of their backers in Saudi Arabia.

"The front has to talk to ISIL via messengers because of the tense situation," he said. "ISIL sees things in black and white. They are very stubborn."

"So far the Islamic Front has been restraining itself, having some sort of dialogue with ISIL," added the rebel source. He noted, however, that unless the hostages were released soon "there will be more discussions and a different decision will be taken."

Contacts with the United States will not be undertaken lightly by the Islamic Front, which includes Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham brigades which are mainly hostile to the West and have rejected US-Russian backed UN peace talks for Syria, due to be held in Switzerland next month.

The foreign-backed insurgents control a large region of northern and eastern Syria but have failed to unite in a single military force, allowing the Syrian army to make inroads around the northern city of Aleppo in recent weeks.

Last week's Islamic Front seizure of the SMC weapons bases led the United States and Britain to suspend non-lethal aid into northern Syria. But the opposition Syrian National Coalition said on Friday that more help, not less, was desperately needed.

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