Throughout December, we have reviewed the approach of the US Government towards the recently-formed insurgent bloc the Islamic Front.
1. After the Front was launched in November as the union of seven leading factions, Washington initially was silent.
2. However, after an incident in early December in which the warehouses of the Free Syrian Army on the Turkish border were raided by gunmen, the US Government quickly condemned the Islamic Front and cut off its non-lethal aid to all insurgent groups in northern Syria.
In fact, the Front had not attacked or “seized” the FSA warehouses. Statements from the Front, the Syrian Coalition, and the Supreme Military Council said that the FSA had asked the Front to protect its headquarters and looted warehouses at the Bab al-Hawa crossing — the attack was probably by members of another bloc, the Syrian Revolutionary Front.
3. Perhaps realizing it had over-reacted, Washington tried to set up talks with the Front, either through envoy Robert Ford or a junior staffer, early this month. The US Government wanted: 1) acceptance of the authority of the US-backed Supreme Military Council; 2) agreement to the process for an international “peace” conference in Switzerland; 3) detachment from the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra; and 4) return of American equipment and supplies taken from the Bab al-Hawa warehouses.
Discreet contact was established with the insurgents, and European representatives also met the Front’s representatives.
4. From the Front’s perspective, the US demands were stringent and even heavy-handed. The insurgent bloc was created in part because of dissatisfaction with the Supreme Military Council, so it is unlikely to immediately subordinate itself to the US-supported commanders. Key factions in the Front have made clear that no support of a “peace” conference without the departure of President Assad from power. Public renunication of Jabhat al-Nusra is not possible, given the de facto co-operation between the Front and JAN over military operations. And the Front claims that it cannot return US supplies if it did not take them in the first place.
So Washington’s attempt to renew talks two weeks ago — again through Ford or a staffer — was rebuffed by the Front.
The specific reason for the rejection is unclear, but it is also possible that Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Front and far from happy with Washington’s current position on the insurgency, was also cool to the US approach.
Now some US officials, apparently frustrated and unhappy with the Obama Administration’s efforts, have leaked details to Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast.
The three officials confirm our analysis of the Administration’s concern that it over-reacted with hostility towards the Front after the Bab al-Hawa border incident. A “Principals Committee-level meeting at the White House in early December” authorized “direct engagement” with the insurgents.
Still, the Administration has been hesitant about the level of engagement, for example, with the planned meeting two weeks ago:
Above State Department objections, the White House determined that the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, would not be appointed to talk to the Islamic Front, despite the fact that he was already in Turkey for meetings with other opposition groups. The White House dictated that a lower-level official, the deputy director of the Syria desk, would represent America.
The officials confirmed to Rogin the US demands set out in Point 4 above. They do not appear to have recognized any reason why those demands might have complicated the attempt at engagement:
“The truth is, we don’t for sure know why the Islamic Front pulled out of the meeting. It could have been because they were insulted,” one administration official [said]. “Right now, there is no follow-up meeting scheduled.”