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Will an al Qaeda Ally Be a Peacemaker in Syria?

Will an al Qaeda Ally Be a Peacemaker in Syria?

The success of the Syrian peace talks may hinge on whether a band of Islamist rebels who have fought with al Qaeda will be allowed to join the next round of negotiations, and potentially play a role in a new government, after mounting a PR campaign to cast themselves as moderate militants.

Saudi Arabia has invited Ahrar al-Sham, along with more than 90 other Syrian opposition representatives, to Riyadh next week in an attempt to unify their message before big-power political talks that are scheduled for Dec. 18 in New York, according to diplomats based at the United Nations who have been briefed on the plans.

But Russia wants Ahrar al-Sham — which has provided some of the stiffest military resistance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — added to the list of terrorist organizations that are excluded from the peace talks.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIL, and Syria’s most prominent al Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, are already designated as terrorist groups by the U.N. Security Council. The United States has stopped short of blocking Ahrar al-Sham from the peace talks but has voiced concerns over its links to al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

Ahrar al-Sham, also known as the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of Syria, was created in late 2011 by former political prisoners to fight the Assad regime. It is widely considered among the most capable of anti-Assad fighting forces not formally designated as terrorist organizations. Over the years, it has joined forces with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra Front, and other anti-Assad elements, and is funded by Turkey and Qatar.

In op-eds earlier this year in the Washington Post and the Telegraph of London, Ahrar al-Sham spokesman Labib al-Nahhas denied his group shares al Qaeda’s extremist ideology. He sought to portray Ahrar al-Sham as a key player in the mainstream opposition in Syria.

At the same time, the armed group signed up to a coalition — dubbed Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest — that included fighters from al-Nusra Front and other extremist Islamic factions seeking to topple the Syrian regime.

“They are very tight with al-Nusra,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.

Indeed, it was that coalition’s military successes earlier this year — it seized vital, strategic strongholds in Idlib and around Aleppo — that prompted Iran to gird its military support for Assad’s regime. It also set the stage for Russia’s intervention in Syria to avert a collapse of the government.

The United States has previously expressed concerns about Ahrar al-Sham’s links to al-Nusra Front. But it has never designated the group as a terrorist organization, leaving the door open for possible cooperation in the future. Recently, Washington has been more willing to explore the possibility of a role for Ahrar al-Sham — as long as it backs international efforts to reach a political settlement with the Syrian government, according to diplomats tracking the process.

“The Americans say anyone who signs on to a cease-fire can be [left off] the terror list,” said one official who is closely involved in the diplomatic process. “Conversely, if you don’t sign onto a cease-fire, you’re fair game.”

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to outline the American position on Ahrar al-Sham but said the United States was “mindful that we have more work to do in resolving this issue.”

Sorting out who is a terrorist and who is a legitimate member of the anti-government opposition in Syria among the myriad armed groups is a primary focus of the international effort to end a civil war that has lasted nearly five years, killed more than 250,000 Syrians, and fueled the rise of extremism.

“Russia’s definition of a terrorist is often our definition of a moderate opposition fighter,” a Western diplomat told Foreign Policy. “Their strikes are often more targeted at them, rather than ISIL — not to mention hospitals, schools, civilians.”

Russia has repeatedly denied such allegations.

While there is broad agreement that the Islamic State will be excluded from political talks, the key international players — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — have widely divergent views on which groups should be included. Qatar, for instance, has urged al-Nusra Front to break away from al Qaeda in hopes the group might be given a voice in the political transition.

Ultimately, the United States seems to be seeking a middle ground on Ahrar al-Sham: While it refuses to embrace the Islamist group, Washington also won’t block it from Western-backed political talks. A Western diplomat said the issue could be resolved if the militant group plays its cards right.

“We don’t view Ahrar al-Sham as a major sticking point,” the official said. “If Ahrar al-Sham is willing to abide by a political process and negotiations towards transition, then it should not be excluded. Nor should it be a legitimate target.”

The Riyadh meeting, set to run from Dec. 8 to Dec. 11, is expected to bring together the most diverse collection of Syrian opposition groups to date at one table. It will include the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian Free Army, as well as the Russian-supported National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change. Additionally, Jaish al-Islam — a Saudi-financed coalition of more than 40 Salafi and Islamist factions that was created in September 2013 to ramp up the war against the Assad regime — has also been invited.

Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. representative of the Syrian National Coalition, said the Riyadh meeting marks the largest gathering of Syrian opposition figures since the war began. He hopes the meeting will lead to the creation of a “unified position” by the Syrian opposition on political progress and select a slate of perhaps two dozen candidates to represent the broader group. He also offered support for Ahrar al-Sham’s participation in the meeting.

While “we don’t have a 100 percent assurance that they will totally disassociate themselves from al Qaeda and become the moderate group we would like them to be, we should give them a chance,” Ghadbian said. “They are fighting the regime, they are a credible force on the ground, and they are Syrian.”

American and British special envoys are in daily contact with the Saudis and other members of the anti-Islamic State coalition over the issue of Syrian opposition representation, a U.K. diplomat told FP. But Riyadh is taking the lead in bringing together the Syrian opposition.

“The Saudis have talked for a while about wanting to host and play a role,” the British diplomat said. “Now the situation is ripe.”

The diplomatic jostling comes weeks before the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other key powers will meet in New York to convene the third round of high-level political talks that began in Vienna earlier this year and ultimately will culminate in presidential elections in Syria. Until now, the Syrian government and opposition groups have been largely excluded from the big-power talks.

Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, denounced the Saudi drive to unite the opposition groups, saying next week’s meeting in Riyadh “will divert Vienna political efforts on Syria from its natural path and will drive the Vienna talks toward failure,” according to the official IRNA news agency, the Associated Press reported.

Who is invited to the negotiations known by world powers as the Vienna process — named for the first two rounds of Russian- and U.S.-backed discussions that were held in the Austrian capital — has emerged as a major sticking point. Complicating matters, key regional powers have been throwing financial and military muscle behind an array of competing factions in Syria, where Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia support a variety of Islamist factions.

Tense relations between Moscow and Ankara have added another layer of complexity since last week’s Turkish shootdown of a Russian warplane along the Syrian-Turkish border. Russian jets are reportedly providing air support to Kurdish military fighters, defying Ankara’s longtime fears and opposition to Kurdish separatist ambitions. Moscow is not the only power helping Kurdish fighters: Seeking to seize territory in northern Syria from the Islamic State, the United States also has supported the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which draws inspiration from Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara and Washington both consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

As the diplomatic meetings approach, Turkey has given the Saudis a list of individuals it considers persona non grata, including the president of a Kurdish separatist group. As of Friday, the PYD’s co-chairman, Saleh Muslim, had yet to receive an invitation to the talks in Riyadh.

But the United States is pressing Ankara to reconsider or at least issue an invitation to another representative from Muslim’s Syria-based political party. Obviously, the Turks have been very clear from “day one” about their opposition to the PYD, said one diplomat involved in the process. “But the Americans have had some tough discussions with the Turks on this. It hasn’t been pleasant.”

Kurds make up the largest ethnic minority in Syria — about 10 percent of the nation’s overwhelmingly Sunni prewar population of 23 million. Ultimately, U.S. and other Western officials said the list of opposition representatives should be as broad as possible in order to represent all Syrians — including Sunnis, Kurds, Druze, Christians, and Alawites.

“Big tent is a good way of describing it,” the Western diplomat said. “It shouldn’t be the West defining this. The Syrian opposition of all different types and backgrounds can be represented. The aim is to facilitate and help them come together to represent a free Syria in the negotiations.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Dec. 5, 2015: The United States has provided support to the YPG, the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which draws inspiration from Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A previous version of this article said it was supporting the military wing of the PKK.