US-Russian Plan Fails to Co-opt Al Qaeda-linked Syrian Rebels

Washington and Moscow set out Thursday, Dec. 10, on another winding road, signposted “solution of the Syrian conflict,” when US Secretary of State John Kerry called on President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. But they quickly ran into their first obstacle. Still, a conference between US, Russian and United Nations delegates is expected to take place in Geneva Friday for the next step.
Tuesday and Wednesday saw Syrian rebel leaders of groups, with no ties to the Islamic State, meeting in Riyadh and a conference of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders.
Both events were hosted by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Their object was to weld together the key Syrian rebel movements into a unified delegation for negotiations with the Assad regime on their country’s future. The process was to start with a succession of local ceasefires that would spread across the country as negotiations advanced – in as far as the state of combat permitted.
It began at dawn Wednesday, Dec. 9, when a UN-brokered truce enabled civilians, rebels – and even ISIS fighters – to escape from the Al-Wa’er neighborhood of Homs after months of being trapped in the embattled city.
DEBKA Weekly notes that the evacuation of this Homs suburb had no real military significance because it is encircled by combined Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah units. But it was a small step that carried a political message badly needed by the rebel chiefs in Riyadh.
For Washington and Moscow, it started a process meant to pave the way for elections to the presidency and parliament and ultimately for Bashar Assad’s removal.
Our Gulf sources report that the US and Russia shared three expectations from the Riyadh conferences:
1. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE will be persuaded to cut off weapons and funding aid so as to force radical Syrian rebel groups to line up with the political process.
2. A Sunni Muslim front would rise in Syria for fighting the Islamic State.
Since Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates hold the key to this front, the US and Russia agreed to Riyadh inviting Al Qaeda-linked or inspired rebel organizations, if they were willing to work with their rivals. The object was to build the broadest range possible of anti-Assad opposition groups for carrying forward a political solution.
And so, while ISIS and the Nusra Front were excluded, Ahrar al-Sham, the most prominent and powerful radical Islamist rebel group, was invited to the Riyadh conference. Saudi Arabia is the only country capable of gathering Ahrar al-Sham and the pro-Western National Syrian Coalition around the same table.
But at the end of the two days of talks, Ashram suddenly got cold feet. Late Thursday, Dec. 10, the group pulled out of the conference, saying pro-government elements were over-represented. But according to DEBKA Weekly sources, the leap from their Al Qaeda masters straight into the arms of Washington and Moscow was too much for its leaders to stomach.
3. At a future stage, the US and Russian planned to try and co-opt Iran and Turkey as necessary players.
Tehran’s participation will depend on the outcome of its secret talks with Riyadh for ending the civil war in Yemen.
Ankara has few other options. Since Turkish fighters downed a Russian warplane on Nov. 24, Russia is tightening a noose around the country by air and naval forces deployed in Syria, the Mediterranean and Armenia.
The Obama administration, for its part, is deepening US military cooperation with the Kurds, whom President Tayyip Erdogan sees as his nemesis.

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