Washington Shakes Hands With Al-Qaeda Ally in Syria
By: Elie Hanna
Published Thursday, December 19, 2013
The US administration wants to meet with Syria’s Islamic Front. Washington is flirting with this al-Qaeda affiliate as it hurries to score extra points before Geneva II. The Islamic Front remains a winning card against Moscow, which is skeptical about the Syrian opposition’s representation.
US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford could be shaking the same hands of those who held the hands of al-Nusra Front's emirs a few days ago.
Sources from the Syrian opposition and Western diplomatic circles informed Al-Akhbar that a meeting was held in Istanbul December 18 between representatives of the US administration and "intermediaries linked to the Islamic Front, not representatives."
The United States wants to keep pace with the changes in the Syrian arena so it became necessary to create links with the Islamic Front, which rose to notoriety after announcing its creation a few weeks ago.
"There is an effort afoot among all of the supporting nations of the Syrian opposition to want to broaden the base of the moderate opposition and broaden the base of representation of the Syrian people in the Geneva II negotiation," US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on December 17.
Washington is close to announcing the death of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The US administration will not protect its pawns who fail to achieve their set objectives, and will simply change the players or move them to another team.
In October 2012, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was time to move beyond the Syrian National Council (SNC). "There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom,” she announced from Zagreb without blinking an eye.
The SNC had been given a grace period of several weeks to expand its ranks, without success. It was placed back on the shelf and the Syrian National Coalition became the sole representative of the Syrian opposition.
Today, the FSA, the coalition's own military wing, is facing a similar situation. The "Friends of Syria" group demanded that the military formations be unified under the command of deserting General Salim Idriss, then the West saw countless armed groups breaking from the FSA command and joining other entities.
What the West wanted to see in the FSA, it saw in the Army of Islam, which began as the Battalions of Islam, then became the Brigade of Islam, and finally decided on Army of Islam last September, which included 43 different military formations.
The Army of Islam became an important component in the Islamic Front. Based on the numbers in the ranks of its "brigades" alone, it could be considered the most influential force in the Syrian opposition's arena.
On their own and with the exception of al-Qaeda's three organizations (al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Green Battalion), four organizations sit on the throne of Syrian opposition groups: Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, Army of Islam, and Suqour al-Sham. These groups merged with several other factions to form the Islamic Front.
The decision to meet with leaders in the Islamic Front was leaked by Washington through its "sources," then through the State Department spokesperson, and then Kerry.
Remarkably, Kerry used the term "moderate" to describe the Islamic Front. Yet its founding document says that democracy is "founded on the basis that legislation is the right of the people through their representative institutions, while in Islam 'only God rules.' This does not mean that we seek a despotic authoritarian regime. However, this nation's affairs will not be remedied except by shura, in concept and application."
The Islamic Front considers the civil state "an ambiguous description, which has become fashionable among many people. It is a rejected concept because of its distortion and wasting of rights."
Putting aside the "theoretical aspect" of this nascent front, its brigades are brothers in arms with the main arm of al-Qaeda in Syria, al-Nusra Front, which has been on the US terrorism list since December 2012.
The alliance on the ground preceded Washington's position and was not influenced by it. For example, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham participated in the Aleppo "rescue" operation in August 2012. In a video broadcast by jihadi media organizations, al-Nusra guerrillas appear in their Afghani garb alongside "their brothers in Ahrar al-Sham." They prepare for their operation and implement it together.
Last September, Abou Anas, "the emir of al-Nusra Front in the western region of Dera," appeared in a recorded video speaking about the cooperation of his group with "Islamic brigades, such as Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qadisiya Brigade in liberating al-Binayat checkpoint in Dera." In his name and that of Ahrar al-Sham and those brigades, he assured the Syrians that they "will continue in the path of revolution and liberation."
Shoulder to shoulder with al-Qaeda's Syrian offspring, Ahrar al-Sham carried out a joint operation against military equipment belonging to the seventh division of the Syrian army in western Ghouta last August, under the name of the United Banner Alliance (with several other Islamist groups).
In another example, during the raid on the town of Maaloula at the beginning of last September when a car bomb went off at a Syrian army checkpoint, al-Nusra issued a statement: "Eight brothers from Ahrar al-Sham joined the operation ... Suqour al-Sham joined our brigade, which protected the Maaloula checkpoint, in covering us at the Jabadin checkpoint and jointly used mortar shells and locally-made missiles."
A few days ago, during an attack on a neighborhood in Adra outside Damascus, the two fronts could not be distinguished from each other, working jointly during and following the attack.
Afterward, the Islamic Front accepted the mediation of its brothers in al-Nusra with the Syrian Rebel Front (SRF) following the events of Bab al-Hawa at the borders. Abu Hamza al-Daradawi, one of "al-Nusra's Sharia scholars," is now considered trustworthy by Washington's "moderates."
Islamic Front military spokesperson, Captain Islam Alloush, described to Al-Akhbar the conflict in Syria: "The fighters are on two sides. The first is Bashar, his soldiers, and those who support them, and the second side is all who fight this regime."
This separation is reminiscent of Bin Laden's division of the world into "a good side and an evil side." Replying to whether the Islamic Front is fighting alongside al-Nusra, Alloush said, "Of course, there are battles we conduct jointly."
Washington wants to negotiate with leaders who are allied with al-Qaeda. A UN official who is closely following the situation in Syria maintains that the Army of Islam – one of the main components of the Islamic Front – is nothing but a parallel organization for al-Nusra.
While Washington is still insisting on dialogue, Ambassador Ford indicated on December 18 that the Islamic Front refused to meet with representatives from the US administration. "We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria," he said.
However, weeks before the Islamic Front was formed, according to a December 17 tweet from Ahrar al-Sham commander Hassan Abboud, “several rebels met with representatives of the Friends of Syria conference and informed them that the revolution continues, and the solution passes through the overthrow of the regime.”
The Islamic Front might be acting stubborn in public and rejecting announced meetings, but for the past two days, the phrase "Washington recommends the Islamic Front" was abundant in the media.
In the end, Washington is keen on courting entities that "represent the Syrians" after the collapse of the coalition's stature. It wants to say that it supports a force with a representative weight in Geneva to reply to Russian criticism that it is "sticking to a group that only represents itself."
The United States needs a "political and popular weight" to counter the Russian alliance in preparation for the Geneva II conference.
"God is great. The mujahideen of al-Nusra and the Islamic Front liberated BEMO Bank and the Syriatel building," blared walkie talkies in Deir al-Zour on December 17 and 18. But the echo will not reach the "decision-makers" in Washington.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.