The West and its Gulf allies have held direct talks with
Syria’s most powerful Islamist militias in an ongoing attempt undercut the rising influence of al Qaeda and unite the rest of the opposition, according to a new report by Stacy Meichtry, Ellen Knickmetyer, and Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal.
A Western diplomat told WSJ that in early November envoys from the U.S., the U.K., France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others met with senior members of rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham, Suqoor al-Sham, and the Tawheed Brigade.
Those three brigades, which make up the bulk of the newly formed and Saudi-backed Islamic Front, collectively comprise a central part of the opposition.
The envoys aimed to heal rifts between the Islamic Front and moderate leader Gen. Salim Idris of the Supreme Military Council, which is the military wing of the opposition’s Western-backed political umbrella group, the Syrian National Council.
The goal, according to Western diplomats, is to draw the powerful Islamist militias away from al-Qaeda affiliated groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The WSJ notes that some Western officials remain wary about courting the Salafi-leaning alliance since their ultimate goal is to establish a Syrian state ruled by Islamic law, or Shariah, and they regularly fight alongside al-Nusra and ISIS.
But one diplomat laid out the alternative: “We believe [the Islamic factions] are groups that, if we do nothing, may go toward more radicalization.”
And Hassan Hassan of the National argues that the unification of seven of the most powerful rebel groups and their current quiet alliance with al Nusra works against the ISIS, which is the most radical and foreign group of all.
From The National:
The closer relationship between the Islamic Front and Jabhat Al Nusra is a marriage of convenience, as the two groups increasingly view the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) as a menace.
… the Islamic Front and like-minded Salafi groups should be seen as an opportunity to counter Al Qaeda rather than a threat to Syria’s future.
In any case, Western officials told the WSJ that they want to persuade some Islamists to support a Syria peace conference in Geneva on Jan. 22 “for fear that the talks won’t yield a lasting accord without their backing.”
That last objective may be a stretch given that the other side of the table, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asserts that he will remain president during any transition agreed upon in Geneva peace talks and considers most rebels to be terrorists.
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