WASHINGTON / DAMASCUS: The United States has reached out to Islamist militias among the Syrian opposition as it seeks to reach a political solution to war in Syria, a U.S. official confirmed Wednesday.
But there have been no contacts with groups such as the Nusra Front that are blacklisted by Washington as terror organizations, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stressed.
“We engage with a broad cross-section of Syrian people and political and military leaders in the opposition, including a variety of Islamist groups,” she told reporters. “We do not engage with terrorists, with groups ... that are designated as terrorist organizations.”
But she refused to specify with which groups her country was speaking, and stressed that U.S. assistance was still only going to the Supreme Military Council of the rebel Free Syrian Army, led by Gen. Salim Idriss.
Harf spoke after The Wall Street Journal reported that a senior U.S. envoy had been sent to meet with key militias following the emergence of a new alliance in Syria last month.
The seven-member Islamic Front is now Syria’s largest armed opposition group, although it continues to function as an alliance more than a single, cohesive rebel formation.
The alliance has said it wants to create an “Islamic state,” while insisting it would protect minorities and not create an “oppressive, authoritarian system.”
Rebel units fighting under the FSA banner have been losing ground as they battle both Assad’s forces and separate militias linked to Al-Qaeda.
The goal of the U.S. diplomatic outreach was to persuade some of the militants to back peace talks due to be held in Geneva on Jan. 22, Western officials told the U.S. daily.
Harf said the talks were “in response to a reality that the opposition is made up of a number of groups, some are Islamist groups, and that in order to get a political solution here, because there is no military solution, we need to get these groups to buy into the notion that there should be a [political] solution.”
The Syrian opposition has yet to determine who would be included in its delegation to the Geneva II peace talks, scheduled for next month.But Harf agreed that the “overall goal” was to get a broad section of the opposition to sit down at the negotiating table.
The top U.S. military officer said Washington saw value in getting to know Islamist militias in Syria, in order to better understand their intentions in the war and their possible links with Al-Qaeda.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to tell reporters whether the U.S. was holding face-to-face talks with Islamist rebel groups. But he said Washington was still seeking to better understand the contours of the myriad rebel groups.
“I think it’s worth knowing whether these groups have any intent whatsoever to be moderate and inclusive, or whether they ... from the start intend to be radical,” he said. “So I think that finding that out, however we do so, is worth the effort.”
The comments came as Syria’s information minister, Omran Zoubi, said President Bashar Assad would lead any transition agreed upon at Geneva, despite the opposition’s demands he be excluded from the process.
“If anyone thinks we are going to Geneva II to hand the keys to Damascus over [to the opposition], they might as well not go,” he said in remarks carried by the government news agency SANA.
The conference is envisioned as a follow-up to the Geneva I meeting of June 2012, at which the two sides agreed on the formation of a transitional government without specifying what role, if any, Assad would have in it.
The plan was never implemented.
In the Vatican, Pope Francis called for prayers for 12 Orthodox nuns reportedly taken by force from their convent in Syria by rebels. Religious officials in the region have said the women were abducted, but Syrian opposition activists maintain they were merely removed for their own safety.
Speaking to a crowd gathered for the pontiff’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Francis invited “everyone to pray for the sisters of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Santa Taqla in Maaloula, Syria, who were taken by force by armed men two days ago.”
“Let us continue to pray and to work together for peace,” he said.
The rebels took the nuns to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud, said Mother Superior Febronia Nabhan, head of the Seidnaya Convent. A Syrian opposition activist claimed the nuns were taken for their own safety because of heavy clashes nearby. However, rebels would not provide evidence of the nuns’ safety, said the activist, who goes by the name Amer.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Nusra Front fighters had taken the nuns to Yabroud, and urged that they be turned over to the Red Cross.
The pope’s appeal came as rebels firing mortar bombs at government-held neighborhoods of Aleppo killed at least 17 people and wounded dozens more, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
Activists also reported clashes in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, the eastern and southern suburbs of the capital, the southern province of Deraa, and the eastern city of Deir al-Zor. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of anti-government activists, said 25 civilians were killed in the violence, of whom at least 10 died in the Aleppo strikes. – Agencies