Friday morning’s New York Times indicates that the US Government, after weeks of confusion and fumbling over its policy, may finally be willing to accept Syria’s leading insurgent bloc, the Islamic Front:
The Obama administration is considering the resumption of non-lethal military aid to Syria’s moderate opposition, senior administration officials said on Thursday, even if some of it ends up going to the Islamist groups that are allied with the moderates.
On the surface, the officials are pointing only to a specific measure. Moreover, they insist that the aid, suspended in early December soon after the Front’s creation, is to be delivered only to the US-backed Supreme Military Council, which oversees the Free Syrian Army.
However, the indication is that Washington is finally coming to terms with the reality that it is the Front, rather than the Council, which is the ascendant force in the insurgency.
The US had halted non-lethal assistance after misleading reports — still being put forward, even in the Times article — that the Front “seized” warehouses belonging to the FSA near an important border crossing with Turkey. In fact, the raids on the warehouses and theft of supplies was carried out by gunmen from another group, probably the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and the FSA called in the Front to protect the facilities.
Perhaps recognizing this, Washington tried to open a dialogue with the Front, notably through talks in Turkey. However, these foundered on US demands such as the Front’s endorsement of Geneva “peace” talks without preconditions and on its acceptance of the leadership of the Supreme Military Council.
That left Washington effectively isolating itself not only from the largest insurgent bloc, with about half of Syria’s fighters, but also its backer Saudi Arabia.
Now it appears that the US has found a way out of its dilemma through this week’s insurgent offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham:
As a result of the rapidly shifting alliances within Syria’s fractured opposition, some of the Islamists fought alongside the Free Syrian Army in a battle against a major rebel group affiliated with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
That has eased American qualms about resuming the aid, the officials said.
A “senior administration official” acknowledged that, while the restored assistance would go to the Council, “You have to take into account questions of how the S.M.C. and the Islamic Front are interacting on the ground. There’s no way to say 100 percent that it would not end up in the hands of the Islamic Front.”
So what’s next?
The officials indicated that the condition of no contact with “Al Qa’eda-linked” groups remains. The insurgency’s turn against the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham solves part of any problem; however, the issue of the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a “terrorist organization” by the US Government, remains.
The Insurgent Front did not include Jabhat al-Nusra in its membership; however, it has established an effective working relationship with the Islamist group.
The US officials also appear to cling to the objective of getting the Front’s backing for the Geneva II “peace” process, even with little hope that a significant meeting will be convened: “Restoring the aid, they said, would send a message of American support at a time when opposition groups are threatening to boycott a Jan. 22 peace conference out of concern that it will only serve to tighten Mr. Assad’s grip on power and discredit them at home.”