A team of U.S. officials met with the leaders of the Islamic Front, including Syria's biggest rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, in Turkey in late 2013, former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to Daily Sabah for the first time.
Ford, who is recently advocated to facilitate a dialogue process between Ahrar al-Sham and the U.S. following the group's outreach to American and British newspapers for help against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), said the meeting was attended by other foreign government officials as well. The meeting was previously reported in Turkish media but was never confirmed by an American official. Media reports said at the time that American officials had tried to convince Islamic Front leaders to re-join the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition but failed to achieve that mission. "It was a long meeting. It was not an easy one, but it was important to hear Islamic Front opinions and viewpoints. Islamic Front was not happy with us. To be frank, we were not … happy with the Islamic Front either. For sure, Ahrar was there." he said.
Ahrar al-Sham recently declared its willingness to cooperate with Western countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. to fight against ISIS, but did not find the support it was looking for. The U.S. State Department said on Thursday the U.S. government had not designated Ahrar al-Sham as a foreign terrorist organization, but they continue to have concerns in terms of the group's relations with extremist organizations, such as al-Nusra Front, which is the Syrian branch of al-Qaida.
The acknowledgment of past U.S. contact with Ahrar al-Sham also suggests that future talks could be possible. However, a senior American official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said although the administration was recognizing the effect Ahrar al-Sham is having on ISIS, there were other things that trouble the U.S. government. "Some of their extremist ideology, their ties to extremists, we can't just look [the] other way. They are not designated as a terrorist organization right now, but I can't say that it won't change in time," the official said.
Ahrar al-Sham's tactical cooperation between al-Nusra Front to fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS have alarmed American officials as far as their intentions for the future of Syria are concerned. Ford said it is important for Ahrar al-Sham to show that it is politically independent from al-Nusra Front. Ahrar al-Sham recently issued a statement declaring full support for the Turkish proposal for a safe zone in northern Syria, and the group expects to benefit from coalition airstrikes against ISIS. However, a new offensive by the group with the help of other opposition groups on Aug. 13 resulted in some brief territorial gains. But in the absence of coalition support, the group retreated from the area. "If I must make a choice between [ISIS] and Ahrar al-Sham, I will choose Ahrar," Ford said.
Ahrar al-Sham recently refuted allegations that it is tied to al-Qaida: "We are not connected to any foreign organization."
Yet Ford believes that it is not convincing enough. "The problem with Ahrar is their rhetoric makes them look like they are supporting international jihad. They sent a message of condolence to [the] Taliban after Mullah Omar's death [who] helped Osama bin Laden [plan the] 9/11 attacks. If you call him a hero, how can Americans work with them or say that Ahrar is OK?" Ford reiterated his calls for dialogue and said Ahrar al-Sham was still important for future peace negotiations. "You talk to people to decide if there is anything that you can share in [terms of] mutual interests. You have to look, you have to discuss and you have to see if it is possible," he said.