BEIRUT — The most powerful coalition of Syrian rebels, the newly formed Islamic Front, has rejected talks with U.S. officials just days after seizing control of warehouses apparently filled with American military equipment destined for more secular rival rebel groups.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arabic language news service, that the leadership of the Islamic Front had refused to meet with U.S. officials, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to such negotiations.
“The Islamic Front has refused to sit with us without giving any reason,” Ford said in Arabic. “We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria.”
The U.S.-backed Syrian Military Council had previously represented the main rebel factions in the international community before spectacularly collapsing in the wake of American refusal to attack the regime for repeatedly using chemical weapons against rebel and civilian targets. The perception of fickle American policymaking – along with long promised but negligibly delivered weapons for vetted rebel groups – eventually saw the Syrian Military Council collapse amid widespread regime gains. Most of the effective rebel units eventually disbanded or joined the Islamic Front, which has called for Islamic rule in a post-regime Syria and has expressed a willingness to work with two al Qaida-linked factions designated as terrorists by the U.S.
Last week, Islamic Front units stormed the remaining military council bases, seizing equipment donated by the U.S. and forcing its leadership to flee to Turkey. Kerry had suggested that the equipment could be returned in exchange for direct talks with the U.S., an overture that Ford said was rebuked.
Saudi Arabia, already anxious about U.S.-Iranian talks that could thaw that 30-year-old rivalry at the expense of Saudi influence, is widely thought to be backing the Islamic Front, which shares many of its extreme views on Islam. That double tension between longtime allies in Riyadh and Washington led the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom to pen an aggressively critical opinion piece in Tuesday’s New York Times.
“We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East,” wrote Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz.
“This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by,” he wrote.
That declaration to go things alone in Syria comes as Saudi has seen support for the rebels among many Western and regional countries evaporate amid Syrian regime military gains over the last six months. Those gains have crippled the revolution’s momentum and produced profound concern over the increasingly conservative or even radical nature of the remaining rebel groups capable of military effectiveness. The Islamic Front has denounced “foreign” influence over the rebellion and stated an end goal of an Islamic state to replace the secular regime of President Bashar Assad.
The other main rebel groups in the wake of the military council’s collapse include the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, both of which share ideologies and close ties to al Qaida and have been designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and much of the West. The al Qaida-linked groups have been accused in more 30 kidnappings of Western journalists and aid workers in northern Syria, their primary area of influence.
The Islamic Front’s willingness to coordinate military operations with both groups is seen as making any sort of effective alliance with the West impossible for now. Both Turkey and Qatar have withdrawn most, if not all, of their military support for the rebels in the wake of the council’s failure.
But the lack of discussion between the West and the rebels is also damaging the ability of international aid groups to bring in relief supplies, as the collapse in talks has left only the Syrian regime to coordinate relief efforts.
“If the Syrian government remains the main channel for the overwhelming majority of international humanitarian aid, millions of people will continue to be deprived of adequate assistance,” warned Dr. Joanne Liu, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres’ international president.
“The High Level Group on Syria must support humanitarian access to all victims of the conflict, whether from Damascus or from bordering countries,” said Liu. The group is composed of a variety of nations trying to resolve the Syrian conflict.
“While in some areas aid is also blocked by certain armed opposition groups, cross-border assistance into opposition-held areas is a crucial issue that cannot be taken off the humanitarian agenda, lest millions be left without assistance. The High Level Group must use its influence on all parties to ensure the immediate opening of humanitarian access in Syria,” she said.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.