Secretary of State John Kerry today confirmed earlier reports that Washington may meet with the Islamic Front, a newly-formed group of hardline Islamist Syrian rebels, that have been accused of taking over the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad.
The meeting would take place in the context of UN-organized Syrian peace talks, called Geneva Two, slated to take place on January 22. The Islamic Front, created last month, was founded by seven groups whose unified goal is to establish an Islamic state in Syria. According to Kerry, openness to meeting with the Front could bring a broader contingency of Syrian rebel groups to the negotiating table:
The United States has not met to date with the Islamic Front but it's possible it could take place... 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 two negotiation.
The peace talks have been postponed again and again, in part due to the difficulty of bringing both sides to a peace summit where compromises are expected. Still, Western leaders are concerned with Washington's decision, citing the group's openly anti-American and anti-democratic views. According to Foreign Policy, the group also espouses an ideology alarmingly similar to al Qaeda's:
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."
Because these Islamist rebels have seized the upper hand in parts of Syria's multi-front war, a meeting between Washington and the Islamic Front seems at this point all-but inevitable. Last week, the group seized U.S. supplies, including arms and food, from the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, prompting the U.S. and UK to cut off non-lethal aid, including medicine, to the northern region altogether. Secular rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army have been losing ground to both Islamist groups and Assad's forces and are desperate for relief after two-and-half-years of fighting. The conflicts have turned the civil war into a multi-pronged battle that has left at least 115,00 dead and millions displaced and is creeping into other countries in the region. The United Nations says the situation is only deteriorating with time. The U.S. may have had the luxury of choice with regards to which group to meet and on what terms months ago, but now any move toward negotiation must be embraced.
Kerry accidentally cancelled what appeared to be a certain military strike on Syria several months ago by sarcastically suggesting that Assad destroy all of the government's chemical weapons following a fatal sarin gas attack. Assad almost immediately pledged to do just that, but without admitting responsibility for the killing. At the time, the move was lauded as an unlikely solution to the Syrian problem, a way for President Obama to stand by his statement that a chemical strike constituted a red line for action without actually attacking Syria. The slick move, however, did nothing to deal with problems that are reemerging now — the empowerment of radical Islamist groups, increasing sectarian violence and the ever-present fear that any military aid to secular rebels fighting the regime will be funneled to al-Qaeda and used to harm the United States.
Washington's decision to open the door to negotiations with religious extremists who appear dangerously close to the latter group is a sign the U.S. have to finally face its Syrian demons.