BEIRUT/ISTANBUL: Syrian rebel commanders from the Islamic Front which seized control of bases belonging to Western-backed rebels last week are due to hold talks with US officials in Turkey in coming days, rebel and opposition sources said on Saturday.
The expected contacts between Washington and the radical fighters reflect the extent to which the Islamic Front alliance has eclipsed the more moderate Free Syrian Army brigades — which Western and Arab powers tried in vain to build into a force able to topple President Bashar Al Assad. The talks could also decide the future direction of the Islamic Front, which is engaged in a standoff with yet more radical Sunni Muslim fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
A rebel fighter with the Islamic Front said he expected the talks in Turkey to discuss whether the United States would help arm the front and assign to it responsibility for maintaining order in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria.
He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks, and gave no further details. Diplomatic sources in Turkey said that US Syria envoy Robert Ford was expected in Istanbul soon but his schedule was not yet confirmed.
The Islamic Front rebel told reporters that rivalry with the ISIL had already led to a spate of hostage-taking between the two sides, and that the Front’s decision to talk to the Americans had further escalated tension. Although he described the two Islamist forces as ideologically close, he said ISIL appeared set on confrontation, perhaps encouraged by some of their backers in Saudi Arabia.
“The front has to talk to ISIL via messengers because of the tense situation,” he said.
“ISIL sees things in black and white. They are very stubborn.”
“So far the Islamic Front has been restraining itself, having some sort of dialogue with ISIL,” the rebel said.
But he said that unless the hostages were released soon “there will be more discussions and a different decision will be taken.”
Contacts with the United States will not be undertaken lightly by the Islamic Front, which includes Salafi groups such as Ahrar Al Sham brigades which are mainly hostile to the West and have rejected US-Russian backed UN peace talks for Syria, due to be held in Switzerland next month.
The Islamic Front, formed by the unification of six major Islamist groups last month, seized control a week ago of weapons stores nominally under the control of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command (SMC).