Kerry: Meeting with Syrian Islamists 'Possible'
Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that “it is possible” the United States would meet with a newly formed Islamist Syrian rebel alliance, AFP reports.
The recently formed Islamic Front wants to replace the regime in Syria with an Islamic state.
“The United States has not met yet to date with the Islamic Front. There has not been a discussion,” Kerry was quoted as having told a news conference while visiting the Philippines.
“It’s possible that it could take place,” he added, after reports that U.S. officials were preparing to meet this week in Turkey with the Islamic Front. Some recent reports indicated that such talks have already taken place.
The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), which was formed last month, unites the largest Islamist rebel brigades under a single command. The Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front were not included in the alliance, although Islamic Front brigades have cooperated with them at times on the battlefield.
The group now represents Syria’s largest armed opposition grouping some tens of thousands of fighters opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad.
Last week, the Front overran the northern headquarters and two warehouses belonging to the U.S.-backed Syrian Free Army, causing Washington to cut off non-lethal aid to the main secular military opposition in the north.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said earlier that if a meeting with the Front did take place, the United States would expect the return of its stolen non-lethal assistance.
Washington has said it is already meeting with a broad section of Syrian groups to try to end the nearly three-year war through negotiations, but has explicitly ruled out any contacts with groups linked to Al-Qaeda or designated as terrorists by the United States.
Last month, the Islamic Front said that it wanted to set up an Islamic state in Syria, but insisted it would protect minorities and not create an “oppressive, authoritarian system.”
Kerry stressed Tuesday that the United States and other nations backing the Syrian opposition were working to “broaden the base of representation of the Syrian people” who would be represented at a peace conference expected next month in Geneva.
“That obviously does not include the radical extremists and the worst elements who are at some degree on the ground,” he added, according to AFP.
Kerry said Washington would continue to push for the peace conference.
“There is no alternative other than continued fighting, continued destruction, continued growth in the refugee population, continued potential disintegration of a whole country and the continued increase of the numbers of radical extremists who are appearing on the scene to fill the void,” he said, adding, “That is dangerous.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said several days ago that the Geneva II conference, which is set for January 22, is in trouble and that the moderate opposition to the Syrian regime was in "serious difficulty".
The Western-backed opposition has said it wants the Geneva peace conference to unseat Assad, but his regime has refused to accept any preconditions on the talks.
The extremist rebels, meanwhile, have declared that attending peace talks or negotiating with the regime would be an act of betrayal.