U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that while the United States had not yet met with representatives of the Islamic Front, it would not rule out the possibility. In diplomatic speak, this basically means that the rendezvous is a fait accompli, and this is a development that should be welcomed, as it may signal the best chance yet for the strengthening of the opposition ahead of Geneva II talks in January.
The Islamic Front – a coalition of seven rebel groups – is not extremist and while it has distanced itself from the Free Syrian Army, it should not be confused with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Its member groups, and their opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad, have long been established in Syria, and its members are national citizens, not foreign mercenaries.
But Washington’s haphazard and clumsy foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria until today has been largely responsible for the current divisions among the opposition. Never able to trust the Americans with their flip-flopping over whether or not to arm the rebels, many opposition groups have been ready to make a pact with the devil, siding with groups with which they may otherwise not find any commonalities, just in the hope of receiving much-needed assistance.
Earlier this month, the Islamic Front seized warehouses and headquarters belonging to the FSA near the border with Turkey. The move prompted the U.S. and the U.K. to withdraw all nonlethal aid to the FSA, claiming they didn’t trust the group to secure supply lines.
This apparent breakthrough, if the U.S. and the Islamic Front indeed meet, represents a significant development for both Washington-rebel relations and the strength of the opposition movement ahead of Geneva. There is a golden opportunity here for the U.S. to move past its way of hazily dealing with the opposition and to actually help solidify the nonextremist groups.
But in order to gain the trust of the Islamic Front, the U.S. is going to have to commit to more than just supplying goggles and boots to the rebels. The U.S. knows exactly what the opposition needs to defeat Assad, so it should stop pretending that anything else will help.
Unless it does this, Washington will be pushing the Islamic Front to side with the extremist groups, for they are able to secure the necessary arms and supplies to win ground from the government. The recent ground successes of these fighters does not equate to their popular support, but merely their rich friends.
The opposition, were it to enter Geneva talks today, would be a sorry state, weak and all over the place. For any potential success of both the January talks and the future of Syria, the opposition needs to come together. If the U.S. is in a position to help in this process and bows out, a grave crime will have been committed.