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U.S. Weighing Closer Ties With Hardline Islamists in Syria

U.S. Weighing Closer Ties With Hardline Islamists in Syria

As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. The development has alarmed U.S. observers concerned that the radical Salafists do not share U.S. values and has dismayed supporters of the Free Syrian Army who believe the moderates were set up to fail.

On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group’s seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week containing U.S.-supplied small arms and food. "We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday. "We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they’re not designated terrorists …  We’re always open to meeting with a wide range of opposition groups. Obviously, it may make sense to do so at some point soon, and if we have something to announce, we will."

How soon the U.S. might engage with the powerful rebel faction, if it chooses to,  is uncertain. On Saturday, Reuters reported that Syrian rebel commanders in the Islamic Front were due to meet U.S. officials in Turkey in the coming days to discuss U.S. support for the group. A Syrian opposition source speaking with The Cable said that efforts were in place to unite the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front under the same coalition. "There are negotiations planned for very soon between the [Free Syrian Army’s] SMC and the Islamic Front to determine what the relationship will be," said the source. America’s role in coordinating the talks remains unclear.

Though the Islamic Front is not a U.S.-designated terrorist group, many of its members hold intensely anti-American beliefs and have no intention of establishing a secular democracy in Syria. U.S. interest in the group reflects the bedraggled state of the Supreme Military Council and the desire to keep military pressure on President Bashar al-Assad ahead of next month’s planned peace conference in Geneva. "The SMC is being reduced to an exile group and the jihadists are taking over," said a senior congressional aide.

The creation of the Islamic Front was announced on Nov. 22 with the purpose of uniting the strength of prominent Islamist militias across the country. Seven Islamist groups, with a total estimated strength of 45,000 to 60,000 fighters, signed on to the merger.

Soon after its creation, the Islamic Front signed a charter that made it clear the group aimed to create a Sunni theocracy, not a Western-style democracy. The document rejected the prospect of any sort of representative government, arguing that in Islam, only "God is the sovereign." It explicitly rejects secularism as "contradictory to Islam," and argues that Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities can be protected on the basis of Islamic law. 

Some of the comments from the Islamic Front’s top leaders support the contention that the group’s ideology comes dangerously close to that of al Qaeda though the front is not aligned with the terrorist network. Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front’s military chief, has demonized Syria’s Alawite minority and called for them to be cleansed from Damascus. As he put it in a recent video: "The jihadists will wash the filth of the rafida [a slur used to describe Shia] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it."

Though the coalition’s beliefs are troubling, their military strength can’t be denied. By some estimates, it’s the single largest rebel command. With an inventory of heavy weaponry, tanks and artillery, experts say it’s both disciplined and generously funded by Gulf sources.

Washington isn’t simply looking for a place for the front. The U.S. also wants the Salafists to return the goods it took from the SMC’s warehouses in Bab al Hawa in northern Syria. In an unexpected takeover, the SMC lost its headquarters to the front last week while its top commander, Gen. Salim Idriss, was out of the country . "Obviously if there would be a meeting with the Islamic Front, it would be in the context, certainly, of the taking over of the SMC headquarters," Harf said.

Any decision to engage or provide support to the Islamic Front risks angering non-interventionists in Congress. Senators such as Kentucky Republican Rand Paul have repeatedly warned the Obama administration against forging such alliances. "You will be funding allies of al Qaeda."

At the same time, some interventionists in the U.S have given up hope that the U.S. can pick the right winner in Syria. "The Islamic Front entrenching power is the culmination of what we worried about," said one hawkish Congressional aide. "By slow-rolling support to the SMC, only a fool would think they could survive on their own."

Others fear that without U.S. coordination with the Islamic Front, the stalemate in Syria will persist and Assad will continue to exploit divisions between the rebels.

David Kenner contributed to this report.