PHOTO: Syrian tribal leaders Alsheikh Irhiman Kawan Ajbara (left) and Sheikh Akram Al-Sayad
The Independent of London reports that some of Syria’s tribal leaders, forming a new coalition, have held “secret talks” with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and President Obama’s representative about an alliance against the Islamic State.
Early last month, some of the…leaders were privately urged by General John Allen, the former US commander of Western forces in Afghanistan given the task of creating a viable fighting force from the moderate rebels, to enlist their tribal fighters in the battle against ISIS [the Islamic State].
The US aim is to create a Syrian equivalent to the previous “Sunni Awakening” that turned the tide against Al Qa’eda during the US occupation of Iraq.
In fact, the talks haven’t been very secret. Photographs have been posted of De Mistura’s meeting with the leaders of the “Coalition of Syrian Tribes and Clans” in June 25 in Geneva, and of the envoy standing with Alsheikh Irhiman Kawan Ajbara of the Ougaidat tribe.
So far, the talks do not appear to have made much headway. Ayid al-Utayfi of the Annaza tribe told The Independent:
“I spoke to General Allen’s people myself when they asked our fighters to join in the fight against Daesh [the Islamic State]. The fact is that we have been fighting Daesh by ourselves and we had to do it without American support, without air cover.
“Why are they providing air cover to the Kurds and Shia fighters in Iraq and not us? We told the Americans that we will consider what they have to say when they give us equal treatment.
A former resident of Palmyra, the historic city in central Syria taken by the Islamic State in May, the tribal leader added, “Why didn’t the Americans bomb them when they made the advance on Palmyra? There has been no consultation with us on what they have been doing.”
However, al-Utayfi said, “The dialogue will continue, we have not turned our backs on the Americans.”
The leaders may have concerns beyond the US attempt to focus on the Islamic State, as they criticize the “sectarian policies” of President Assad for creating a “terrible situation”. They challenged UN envoy de Mistura for saying that Assad is “part of the solution” to the four-year conflict.
“We were disappointed with what Mr de Mistura had to say and with what he has done so far. He needs to be much tougher with the regime,” said Sheikh Hashem Sulaiman al-Jarba.
A Syria-based observer is sceptical that the talks will make any difference in the Syrian crisis: “They show how far from reality the US officials are operating. They also prove that the UN is totally useless, too.”
While emphasizing that the tribal groups are important — “that’s why rebel groups always pay tribute to them” — the observer adds a complication for the US Government, given that Washington is maintaining its distance from cooperation with rebel factions:
Any deal made with any tribal leader will somehow include the bigger armed groups, whether Allen likes that or not.
All decisions will be made on the ground in Syria, by people living, suffering and fighting within Syria, not by expatriates on the payroll of foreign powers.
He concludes that the discussions, absent any meaningful shift in US strategy to confront both the Islamic State and the Assad regime, will be mainly for show: “Since they do know their westeners, the leaders will present a polite smile while farting their true feelings.”