Reach Out to Syria's Islamic Front

January 14, 2014 Topic: TerrorismSecurity Region: Syria Blog Brand: The Buzz

Reach Out to Syria's Islamic Front

The United States' last best hope of containing Al Qaeda in Syria isn't pretty.

The military balance in Syria, both between the anti-Assad opposition and the regime as well as amongst various factions of the opposition, has quite predictably and significantly deteriorated. The U.S.-“supported” Free Syrian Army (FSA) is fading into irrelevance; now, the [comparatively] moderate Islamic Front (IF) is essentially the only obstacle preventing more radical, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups – particularly Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shaam (ISIS) – from dominating the opposition and post-Assad Syria – if there ever is a post-Assad Syria.

If nearly half a century of ruthless Baathist rule didn't completely discredit the idea of secular governance in Syria, the FSA's downfall was the nail in secularism's coffin. Now, all options are Islamist, although some, like the Islamic Front, are more moderate than others. Formed in November 2013 with the merger of several powerful Islamist rebel factions, the IF is today one of the most powerful factions of the Syrian opposition, if not the most powerful. Although the IF is not formally linked with Al Qaeda, its members often fight alongside Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

ISIS and JN are heavily populated by foreign fighters, who often care more about establishing an Islamic emirate within and beyond Syria’s borders than improving the lives of ordinary Syrians. In contrast, the IF is almost entirely composed of Syrians based in areas where they grew up, and has
demonstrated a willingness to adjust its goals and practices to maintain popular support.="#sthash.oh9ptfzh.br34cfeh.dpuf">="#sthash.oh9ptfzh.br34cfeh.dpuf">

Indeed, the half-hearted nature of Washington’s support of the FSA is a major cause of the decline of the more moderate and secular component of the Syrian opposition, although not the only one. Related to this enfeeblement of the FSA, more hardline groups were able to attract many recruits that might have otherwise joined FSA ranks, because these groups were generally better-armed than was the FSA and many of their members already gained significant combat experience fighting in Iraq during the U.S. occupation of that country. The FSA also reportedly committed widespread abuses of Syrian citizens in the areas that it ‘liberated’, which greatly reduced support for the group.

The FSA, Washington’s primary Syrian proxy, has proven incapable of deposing Assad. Despite the administration’s public pronouncements to the contrary, it has become increasingly apparent that no serious U.S.-backed effort to unseat Assad is forthcoming, either. President Obama – and, more importantly, the American people – have little desire to devote the substantial time, treasure, and blood that would almost certainly be required to force Assad from office and stabilize Syria. But whether or not Assad goes anytime soon – or ever – a massive Al Qaeda presence across all or part of Syria seriously threatens U.S. regional interests and allies.

Given this stark reality, it would be prudent to consider and pursue next-best options to FSA-induced regime change. In particular, the US and other key outside backers of Syria’s rebels should work to bolster the IF, both in order to limit the influence of ISIS and JN in Syria and to increase pressure on the Assad regime.

Related to this, outside efforts to strengthen the IF vis-à-vis JN and ISIS should, at least for the time being, be oriented toward discouraging further confrontation between the IF on the one hand and the AQ-affiliated groups on the other (fighting has been
raging in recent days between the IF and ISIS), which would divert attention and resources from the fight against Assad. While some might find the temptation of pushing the IF to more directly combat the AQ-linked groups difficult to resist, they should for now keep their eyes on the larger goal of unseating Assad – or of at least denying Assad an outright victory anytime soon – and ought to instead seek to weaken ISIS and JN by increasing the appeal and influence of the IF, by providing it with robust lethal and nonlethal assistance.="#axzz2pvdxydid">

Whether Assad stays or goes, the IF should be made strong enough to be able to combat the Al Qaeda affiliates effectively; this will be especially critical should Assad fall and Syria’s security apparatus disintegrate, which would leave little or no check on the extremist groups.

While Assad’s external opponents, including the US, should discourage the IF from further confrontation with ISIS or JN, so too should outsiders discourage the IF from becoming closer to the Al Qaeda affiliates. Although, as State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf
said last month, the US “can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they're not designated terrorists", the administration will almost surely be pressured to designate the IF as a terrorist organization if it moves closer to these groups. Such a designation would deprive the US of its last good chance to have meaningful influence with the anti-Assad opposition.="#sthash.bcjepdkn.dpbs">="#sthash.bcjepdkn.dpbs">

A fundamental ingredient for success in any of these undertakings is for the administration to communicate that it will provide robust and reliable support to the IF – a difficult message to convey after the White House’s abandonment of the FSA. At a minimum, the US should resume supplying the moderate opposition, particularly the IF, with nonlethal aid, which the administration is reportedly now considering.

Saudi Arabia is already far ahead of the US on this issue. Largely because of its concern over the growing influence of ISIS and JN on the ground inside Syria, the Kingdom has provided significant support to the Islamic Front. Despite official Saudi claims to the contrary, though, evidence is mounting that many of these Saudi-provided weapons have fallen into the hands of ISIS and JN. Assuming that it hasn’t already done so, the administration should increase intelligence cooperation with the Saudis to prevent or at least limit this diversion. Additionally, although it would likely be a hard sell, Washington could push Riyadh to condition the further provision of some or all weaponry to the IF on the effectiveness of the group’s efforts to prevent arms from being shared with ISIS and JN.

The Obama administration appears to have recognized that a major inflection point is approaching, because the IF is increasingly the only game in town. In what appeared to be a promising development at the time, the administration recently expressed its willingness to meet directly with the IF, shortly after the latter chased the FSA from its headquarters in northern Syria and commandeered the U.S. non-lethal aid stored there.

The IF spurned the administration's offer of direct engagement, which should have come as little surprise. After all, the administration, after months of providing only lukewarm support, has already essentially abandoned its original FSA allies; why should the IF expect any better treatment from Washington? Also, rather than heeding the State Department's recommendation that the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, represent the United States in talks with the IF, the White House instead chose State's deputy director of the Syria desk, a much lower-ranking official, thereby insulting the already justifiably skeptical IF, which refused to attend the meeting.

Had the meeting taken place, the administration reportedly planned to push the IF to attend the Geneva II Syria peace talks scheduled for later this month, and relinquish control of the seized FSA headquarters. Perhaps most significantly, the White House planned to communicate that the US cannot work with the Islamic Front if the group continues or deepens its working relationship with what the US considers to be terrorist organizations, including ISIS and JN.

Assuming that the Obama administration doesn’t want to completely wipe its hands of the Syrian crisis – a questionable assumption, indeed – it should reinvigorate its efforts to reach out to the IF. In this case, however, actions matter at least as much as words, or who delivers those words. Unlike its handling of the FSA, the administration should make and credibly convey its decision to robustly support the Islamic Front. If this is more than the White House can agree to, then it’s time to close Washington’s last window of opportunity in Syria. After all, it’s pretty cold in Damascus these days, too.

Image: Flickr/Jayel Aheram. CC BY 2.0.