The Obama administration is again doubling back on its Syrian war policy, this time engaging in a secret approach to the Islamic Front, the most powerful force now battling the Assad regime. Recently set up by six Muslim militias with 40-50,000 fighting men, the new front is led by Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi and his Ahrar al Sham militia.
debkafile’s counter-terrorism forces report that, although its Salafist members aspire to impose Sharia law on Syria, in common with Al Qaeda, they are against its methods of warfare.
On Dec. 11, fighters of the Islamic Front seized Free Syrian Army headquarters, the Syrian Military Council, and weapons warehouses, as well as the Bab al-Hawa crossing from northwestern Syria into Turkey. This was a devastating setback for FSA, once the leading rebel force against Bashar Assad, and virtually extinguished the group as an effective fighting force after its recent setbacks.
It was bad enough for its commander, Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, to flee to Qatar. Despite protestations to the contrary, he is unlikely to return to Syria in the hurry.
Announcing the cut-off of “non-lethal assistance to the opposition in northern Syria,” Washington more or less turned its back on the FSA and launched an approach to its vanquisher.
Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria through whom the US has maintained contact with Syrian rebel militias, was dispatched to Turkey to start talks with the Islamist Front leader Al Hamawi.
Our Washington sources report that Ambassador Ford’s most urgent task is to hold together the pieces of the Obama administration’s disintegrating position in Syria after the FSA was wiped out.
The administration is examining three hard options:
1. The Islamic Front is backed, funded, armed and supplied with intelligence by Saudi Arabia. By beating the FSA, the Front has awarded Riyadh high Syrian points against Washington. However, the Obama administration is deeply committed to joint steps in Syria with Moscow and Tehran, the sequel to the six-power nuclear accord forged in Geneva last month, to which Saudi Arabia is flatly opposed.
President Barack Obama would therefore prefer to ignore the Saudi success in Syria.
2. For the second option, Ambassador Ford was empowered all the same to offer the Islamist Front a seat at Geneva II, the conference on a political solution of the Syrian civil conflict taking place in Montreux on Jan. 22. American military and financial assistance would also be on tap.
This would be a bitter pill for the Washington to swallow, since the Islamic Front is led by commanders who quit other militias in protest against US failure to deliver promised arms.
3. The third option would be to heed voices rising now in Washington to start talking to the Syrian ruler Bashar Assad and admit that the US and the West fell down badly in underestimating his durability and military edge in the course of the three-year civil war.
Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Baghdad and an eminent influence on US Middle East policy in the past decade, was the first prominent voice to advocate this course: “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again…,” he wrote in an article. “ It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”
He was echoed by former CIA and NSA director Adm. Michael Hayden, who said: “The sectarian bloodbath in Syria is such a threat to regional security that a victory for Bashar al-Assad's regime could be the best outcome to hope for.”
Talking to the annual Jamestown Foundation conference of terror experts on Dec. 11, Hayden said that a rebel win was not one of the three possible outcomes he foresees for the conflict: "Option three is Assad wins. And I must tell you at the moment, as ugly as it sounds, I'm kind of trending toward option three as the best out of three very, very ugly possible outcomes."
Those voices present Robert Ford with his second big challenge, which is not just to bring the Islamic Front to the conference in Montreux, but steer it towards an understanding with Assad for generating a military coalition for saving Syria from Al Qaeda. To this end, the Obama administration will also have to start talking to the Syrian ruler.