Obama’s Failed Outreach to Syria’s Islamic Front

Earlier this month, the president decided to approach the Islamists at the center of the Syrian revolution. Here’s why they spurned his offer of help against Assad.

The Obama administration’s outreach to the Islamic Front in Syria earlier this month failed due to a flawed plan and unrealistic goals, insiders say—and now American influence on the ground with the armed Syrian opposition is at a new low.

In a Principals Committee-level meeting at the White House in early December, top officials from several national security agencies convened to decide on the next steps in the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the moderate Western-backed rebels, had been chased from their headquarters in Northern Syria, leaving U.S. non-lethal aid in the hands of the Islamic Front, a new alliance of Salafist groups estimated to control over 130,000 fighters throughout Syria.

At this meeting, the top U.S. officials decided to open up direct engagement with the Islamic Front for the first time in the three-year civil war, according to three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal government deliberations.

But above State Department objections, the White House determined that the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, would not be appointed to talk to the Islamic Front, despite the fact that he was already in Turkey for meetings with other opposition groups. The White House dictated that a lower-level official, the deputy director of the Syria desk, would represent America at the momentous encounter. Just before the appointed time, the Islamic Front cancelled the meeting.

“The truth is, we don’t for sure know why the Islamic Front pulled out of the meeting. It could have been because they were insulted,” one administration official told The Daily Beast. “Right now, there is no follow-up meeting scheduled.”

Had the meeting actually occurred, the White House had prepared three specific talking points for the U.S. representative to deliver to the Islamic Front. First, she was to encourage the Islamists to attend what’s known as the Geneva 2 conference in January, an effort to bring the U.S., Russia, the Syrian regime, and the opposition together to negotiate a transition to a new government in Syria.

(Privately, State Department officials are deeply skeptical the conference can succeed while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues his brutal bombing campaign on contested civilian areas such as Aleppo. Also, the Islamic Front has made clear they have no interest in attending a peace conference with the regime at this time.)

Secondly, the U.S. representative was to request that the Islamic Front return control of warehouses containing a range of equipment, some U.S.-supplied, that they seized from the Free Syrian Army earlier this month near the Turkish border. The U.S. has suspended non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels following the takeover of the warehouses because America no longer has confidence that aid won’t flow to terrorist elements.

Third, the U.S. representative was instructed to communicate America’s “red line”—that America could not have a working relationship with the Islamic Front if they continued to work directly with rebel groups that the U.S. government has deemed as “terrorists,” namely the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

For many experts and observers, the administration’s conditions reflect a misunderstanding of who holds the leverage in the budding U.S. relationship with Islamists on the ground in Syria. The U.S. needs influence with credible actors on the ground more than those groups covet small bits of U.S. assistance.

But the rise of the Islamists is at least partially due to a failed U.S. policy over the last three years that avoided supporting groups that were more Western and democratic-leaning, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The problem is that our hands-off approach to arming the moderates meant that while they were well-stocked with non-lethal assistance, groups on the right end of the spectrum got arms from the gulf to fight the war against Assad,” he said. “Right of center Salafists in the Islamic Front are among the strongest rebel factions in Syria. They are not al-Qaeda, but the Islamic Front groups often fight alongside al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al Nusra.”

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Despite America’s lack of ability to influence the Islamic Front, the Obama administration now has no choice but to keep trying, said Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American NGO that works directly with several Syrian opposition groups.

“The Islamic Front did not meet with the United States because of certain preconditions the U.S. had insisted on, as well as the fact that the Islamic Front wholly rejects a second Geneva and the premise of the meeting would be to pressure the Islamic Front to attend the conference,” he said.

The United States must pragmatically engage with the Islamic Front while keeping in mind that the Islamic Front was formed without the objective of gaining U.S. or Western support, Moustafa said. The Islamic Front works with al-Qaeda out of convenience, but doesn’t share their ideology.

“Alienating the Islamic Front puts the U.S. at risk of losing any leverage or influence within the armed opposition,” he said. “It’s not about whether they are good guys or bad guys. The Islamic Front is the only counterbalance to extremists in Syria. The U.S. must recognize that.”