The enemy of my enemy: U.S. considers backing Syrian Islamic Liberation Front

Rebel fighters from the secular Free Syrian Army

Rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army

As the secular Free Syrian Army becomes increasingly marginalized, the U.S. State Department is considering supporting the larger Syrian Islamic Front in the conflict against the Assad regime.

Apparently unphased by the ideological gap between American foreign policy and the Islamist values of the Front, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Monday, “We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front.”

Immediately, the parallels to American support for the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are hard to miss. In that conflict, U.S. money funded Islamist fighters who sought to drive the Soviets out of the country. Many commentators have pointed out that by doing so they likely supported the rise of al Qaeda. Now, in order to remove from power a Russian ally that U.S. officials have been betting against, the State Department may be prepared to align itself with a faction of fighters who seek to establish an Islamic government in post-Assad Syria.

If U.S. officials were to go through with offering support, it seems unlikely that they could have as much influence as they would like. Syria’s rebel factions are not perfectly divided between secularists, Islamists and al Qaeda supporters. There are secularists in the Islamist factions, and vice versa.

By offering even modest optimism about working with the Front, the State Department reveals some degree of desperation on the issue of removing Assad from power. Although it has declared itself a moderate movement, the Islamic Front has little stake in furthering U.S. interests, and aside from wanting Assad removed, the two have little common cause. Any optimism over the “moderate” label should be tempered by our lack of reliable information about rebel groups. The real ideological composition of the group is less than clear in light of some of its leaders’ comments.

From Foreign Policy:

Some of the comments from the Islamic Front’s top leaders support the contention that the group’s ideology comes dangerously close to that of al Qaeda though the front is not aligned with the terrorist network. Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front’s military chief, has demonized Syria’s Alawite minority and called for them to be cleansed from Damascus. As he put it in a recent video: “The jihadists will wash the filth of the rafida [a slur used to describe Shia] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it.”

Needless to say, this is not suggestive of a promising working relationship.