It’s bad enough watching the US’ main secular ally in the Syrian civil war — the man who was supposed to control the rebellion on behalf of the West — get chased out of his own country by the Islamists critics warned would take over the anti-Bashar Assad effort. Chuck Hagel called it “a big problem.” Now, faced with few options to salvage its position in Syria, the White House has floated the idea of providing backing to the Islamists in Syria instead:
The Obama administration is willing to consider supporting an expanded Syrian rebel coalition that would include Islamist groups, provided the groups are not allied with al-Qaeda and agree to support upcoming peace talks in Geneva, a senior U.S. official said Thursday. …
The emergence last month of the Islamic Front has presented the administration with a dilemma as it seeks to maintain military pressure on the Syrian government before an opposition-government peace conference next month that it hopes will lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and the installation of a transitional government.
The SMC, whose Free Syrian Army is the only opposition armed force the United States backs in Syria, has lost both strength and influence to anti-
Assad Islamic groups. Among them is the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the al-Nusra Front, both of which have been labeled terrorist groups by Washington.
But the increasingly powerful Islamic Front, while it includes many Salafists seeking an Islamic state in Syria, is not affiliated with al-Qaeda. Talks between U.S. envoy Robert Ford and Islamic Front figures held in Turkey last month were inconclusive, said the senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the developing policy.
Er, just how “not affiliated with al-Qaeda” do they have to be? Both groups want to establish an Islamist state in Syria, based presumablty on shari’a law. While that would keep Iranian-style mullahcracy out of Syria — maybe — it’s still going to establish yet another radical government that imposes Taliban-like totalitarianism on what had been a multicultural nation, even if ruled by a hereditary despot. And while the Islamic Front isn’t officially allied with al-Qaeda — maybe — this sounds like having an al-Qaeda-run state without the direct influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
That sounds like a bad outcome for the US, not one we’d actively help develop.
Meanwhile, Gen. Salim Idris wants everyone to know that the Islamists didn’t drive him out of Syria — he wasn’t there to begin with. And he’s still not there:
On Wednesday, some senior U.S. officials said they believed that Gen. Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, had fled northern Syria to Turkey after Islamist rebels seized his headquarters and some warehouses storing international aid.
However on Thursday, the State Department said updated information showed Gen. Idris was in Turkey at the time of the incursion and had not fled Syria. Mr. Idris said the same thing in an interview with CNN, denying he had fled.
State Department officials said Gen. Idris has a house just across the border in Turkey, not far from the headquarters in northern Syria.
Gen. Idris then flew from Turkey to Qatar, U.S. officials said. He has since returned to Turkey and SMC officials said he met Thursday with other commanders from his group.
“I am back. I am with my officers,” Gen. Idris told CNN. “We are trying to stop the fight between the revolutionary forces and to go back to fight against the regime.”
The Christian Science Monitor declares Obama’s Syria policy dead:
Today, the exiled politicians in the Syrian National Council, a US-backed civilian group, claimed that the Islamic Front had actually come to the FSA’s rescue. The US has sought since last year to put this council forward as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. Its spokesman, Khaled Saleh, said that the FSA’s base was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a rival Islamist group to the Islamic Front that sprung out of Al Qaeda in Iraq,Reuters reports. The Islamic Front was then invited in by the FSA, and drove out ISIS, Saleh said. Are we clear so far?
Maybe that’s the way it happened, but the dramatically different stories told by the US and the US-favored Syrian opposition are not very reassuring. The disputed events near the Turkish border were said to have taken place over the weekend.
The Syrian National Council has often been touted as an umbrella for most of the Syrian rebellion’s fighting strength (for instance by Elizabeth O’Bagy, a paid advocate for US intervention in Syria who lost her job earlier this after she was found to have lied about her academic credentials). However, in practice it has represented the FSA and little else – and not very effectively. …
Furthermore, the claim today that the FSA teamed up with the Islamic Front to stand up to the Al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS won’t exactly give US officials the warm and fuzzies. The front’s units have engaged in hyper-sectarian rhetoric and are opposed to any kind of political settlement that would leave in place Syria’s current power structure – the only real hope for a negotiated end to the war at this point.
A negotiated end is what Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have insisted is the only way out of the war, but the marginalization of men like Idris makes any grounds for meaningful talks even shakier than they’d been all along.
What are the options going forward for a real US strategy in Syria – where the conflict continues to cast a shadow of destabilization over Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and to some extent Turkey? None particularly obvious.
There are no good options — and there never were any from the start of the civil war, as Dan Murphy concludes. All we have is a choice between radical Islamists of varying stripes, or the current despot backed by Persian Islamists. We shouldn’t back any of them.
Note: I’m still on leave until Monday, and I want to thank Hot Air readers for their many messages of support as we settle arrangements for my sister-in-law Mary’s passing.