Emergence of Syrian Islamic Front poses difficulties for west ahead of Geneva talks
Alliance of six rebel brigades confident enough to refuse US invite to talks
Gen Salim Idriss: within days of the Islamic Front’s takeover of a major strategic border crossing linking Syria and Turkey, the US government announced it would halt non-humanitarian support to the Supreme Military Council, which is led by the general. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
The last chance for an alignment between the US and Syrian rebel forces ahead of talks slated for Geneva next month appear to have disappeared.
On Wednesday, the newly formed Islamic Front, an umbrella of six major Syrian rebel brigades, rejected overtures from US diplomats to sit down and talk. This follows the Islamic Front’s takeover of a strategic border crossing linking Syria and Turkey, and formerly run by western-backed rebels, earlier this month.
Within days of the border appropriation, the US government announced it would halt non-humanitarian support to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the military wing of the opposition National Coalition and which is led by Gen Salim Idriss. Diplomats led by US ambassador Robert Ford initially hoped to work with the Islamic Front to sideline extremist elements among the disparate rebel movement.
The Islamic Front is a constellation of Islamist rebel groups and is the largest union of opposition military forces since the popular uprising broke out in Syria in March 2011. When US diplomats approached the Front for talks this week it declined, and Syria’s foreign ministry has weighed in, claiming the Front “agrees in principle, strategy and goals” with the terrorist-designated Nusra Front.
Conflicting accounts have emerged over how Gen Idriss’s forces, which have been openly supported by the US government, lost control of the crucial compound on December 6th in Babisqa, a kilometre from the Turkish border in northwest Syria.
Islam Alloush, the military spokesman for the Islamic Front, said that when “an unknown group” attacked the compound, which was stocked with medical supplies, body armour and weapons, the officers on guard simply ran away. The SMC’s leadership then called in forces from the Islamic Front to oust the unidentified gunmen. The Front is in control of the compound and the nearby Bab al-Hawa border crossing.
“We [the Islamic Front] established roadblocks in the area upon arrival. We met whoever was left from the SMC and protected the headquarters in the area. Several calls were made between the SMC staff and Islamic Front,” he said.
The Bab al-Hawa crossing has served as a crucial outlet for western-backed insurgents running weapons and ammunition, as well as injured fighters, over the border to safety in Turkey.
The SMC, which stands as the west’s chief military interlocutor in Syria, has rarely been regarded as a prominent military force and has seen its influence wane in recent months across the north. The emergence of the Islamic Front further compounds its decline.
On January 22nd next, international powers and opposing Syrian factions are to meet in Geneva to attempt to hammer out an end to the fighting, increase aid supplies to stricken towns and to discuss a political transition for the country. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has set December 27th as a deadline for government and opposition forces to name their Geneva delegations. Opposition forces have for over two years squabbled over how to unite and take on Assad’s forces.
Some Syrian opposition figures say the interim nuclear deal brokered by five world powers including the US and Iran last month may shift the stage for an agreement over Syria.
“We’re afraid [the Iran nuclear deal] would allow for more influence of Iran in Syria. Maybe they would make a deal between the US and Iran to have the regime in Syria stay but without [President] Assad,” said Abdulrahman al-Hajj, a member of the National Coalition’s general secretariat. “Maybe they would keep the regime as it is with Iran in control. We don’t know.”
The emergence of the Islamic Front may establish a new reality on the ground in northern Syria where until now jihadist forces, including several thousand foreign fighters, have dominated the battlefield.
“The Islamic Front is a problem for Isis,” said al-Hajj, referring to the al-Qaeda-aligned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “The situation should become less dangerous as the Islamic Front is less extreme. Maybe Isis will become more afraid as the Islamic Front is made up from mostly Syrians, not foreigners as Isis is.”
He said Syrians who support an Islamist ideology find the Islamic Front more acceptable to them than the jihadist groups roving northern and eastern Syria. Isis has succeeded in winning support among some communities in rebel-controlled Syria, though a series of beheadings recently, including of an Iraqi journalist and separately, a fighter attached to a military ally, have cost it support.
Alloush of the Islamic Front would not be drawn as to whether or not the Front opposes Isis but said that until now there has been no communication between the groups.
Abdulrahman al-Hajj of the National Coalition sees the establishment of the Islamic Front as an opportunity for Syria’s political opposition.
“We can make negotiations with them but not with Isis. Until now we have a chance to control them.”