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Qatar Adviser Questions U.S. Stance On 'Moderate Islamists' In Syria


An image taken from a propaganda video uploaded to the Internet last year by Syria's Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, showing its members taking part in a training session at an undisclosed location in Syria. Ahrar al-Sham has since merged with other Islamist factions to form the Islamic Front.

An image taken from a propaganda video uploaded to the Internet last year by Syria's Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, showing its members taking part in a training session at an undisclosed location in Syria. Ahrar al-Sham has since merged with other Islamist factions to form the Islamic Front.

An adviser to Qatar's Armed Forces has said there is a "massive discrepancy" between what the United States considers to be moderate Islamism and how Qatar and Turkey understand that concept.

This has affected which rebel groups the United States and the West has supported in Syria, Dr. Andreas Krieg told RFE/RL on November 6.

One of the major Syrian rebel factions that the United States has opposed and Qatar has supported is the Islamic Front. The group was formed in November 2013 when seven Islamist rebel factions (including some Salafist groupings such as Ahrar as-Sham) merged.

The United States' refusal to back the Islamic Front, citing the group's Islamist ideology and the links of some of its officials -- notably Abu Khaled As-Suri formerly of Ahrar as-Sham -- with Al-Qaeda reflects a lack of understanding in the West of the subtleties of political Islam, Krieg believes.

"In the U.S., in particular, there is a lack of nuance when it comes to political Islam," Krieg said. "Islamist ideology is regarded as incompatible with Western values of liberal democracy. As U.S. foreign policy traditionally supports liberation movements that pursue a liberal democratic organization, the groups of the Islamic Front might not fall within this category and consequently are not regarded as groups worth supporting."

According to Krieg, who is also an assistant professor at King's College London's Defence Studies Department, the U.S. principle of backing groups that it deems compatible with its notions of liberal democracy may not be applicable in the region.

While the Islamic Front has spoken out in favor of concepts such as inclusive governance and consultation, the group has shied away from using terms like "democracy."

Social Justice Trumps Democracy

Krieg believes that regional players in Syria do not necessarily consider the United States' "default solution of liberal democracy" as suitable for them.

"Considering that the people of the region yearn for social justice and inclusive governance, not necessarily liberal democracy, the U.S. foreign policy maxim might not be compatible with what people want on the ground," he said.

In a January 2014 Internet interview, the Islamic Front's military commander Zahran Alloush rejected the concept of democracy and explained that Syrians wanted an Islamic state.

"As I've said in the past, the democracy we see in the world today is the dictatorship of the strong. We do not believe that democracy equals justice. This is an illusion," Alloush said.

The Islamic Front's ideology has meant that the United States has prevented states like Qatar, whose efforts to arm some groups in Syria were under U.S. supervision, from funding the group.

"Often the U.S. has not allowed Qatar or Saudi to deliver arms directly to these groups in fear that these groups might use the arms in erecting a jihadist caliphate," Krieg says.

Through these efforts, the United States has certainly succeeded in weakening the Islamic Front in Aleppo, where Syrian government forces continue to advance. In August, "The Wall Street Journal" noted that the Islamic Front's resources had dried up over the summer, after the United States "reined in Qatar's support for the coalition."

According to "The Wall Street Journal," some Syrian opposition leaders believed that Washington was trying to push the Islamic Front to join the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army by allowing only limited supplies to reach the group in Aleppo.

"Not just the Islamic Front is suffering, but all rebels are suffering from the lack of resources. All those countries that were supplying rebels are tired. The revolution has taken so long," Mohammed Alloush, a leader of the Army of Islam, part of the Islamic Front, was quoted as saying.

According to Krieg, the United States' fears over arming some Islamist factions "are not completely unfounded."

Many of the moderate Islamist groups have radicalized as the Syrian civil war has gone on and on, with the result that some arms intended for moderate rebels groups have got into the hands of more extremist factions.

Dynamic Environment

Krieg's solution is to instigate an ordered system of training and arming groups.

"It is important to understand that this is a dynamic environment where new groups appear and existing groups constantly merge. That is why there needs to be an effort to institutionalize support by extracting groups from the context, arm them, train them and instill a certain ethos in them before sending them back into battle," he told RFE/RL.

The difficulties of arming moderate rebels in the highly fluid reality of the Syrian civil war were highlighted last week, when two of the main moderate rebel groups armed by the United States surrendered to Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate in Idlib province.

Washington had wanted Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, to which it had supplied heavy weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles, to form part of a ground force to combat IS.

Dr. Andreas Krieg

Dr. Andreas Krieg

Harakat Hazm, which is part of the Free Syrian Army, remains in Aleppo, where it has signed a ceasefire agreement with Jabhat Al-Nusra. The U.S.-backed grouping has played an important role against Syrian government forces in Handarat, north of Aleppo city, where it has fought alongside Jabhat Al-Nusra (although there is no evidence to suggest that Harakat Hazm has shared any of its U.S.-supplied weapons with Islamist factions).

Krieg believes that the United States' policy of relying on the Free Syrian Army to challenge the Islamic State group and the Syrian government will not be successful, because the Free Syrian Army does not have the discipline or effectiveness of factions like the Islamic Front.

No U.S. U-Turn In Sight

The Islamic Front "might be extremist in the means and rhetoric they use but they neither pose a threat to the West nor to minorities in the region," he adds.

Krieg, who has said that the problem of IS in Syria and Iraq is part of a bigger regional challenge of helping the Syrian and Iraqi peoples create "sustainable states founded on social justice."

"The plan will not work if the states fighting IS continue to ignore the moderate Islamist groups who united under the banner of the Islamic Front," Krieg believes.

Is the United States likely to shift its policy towards backing Islamist factions, particularly in the light of the recent surrender of the Free Syrian Army Harakat Hazm faction in Idlib, and amid Syrian government advances in Aleppo?

The Pentagon has insisted it will not shift its approach in Syria.

In a November 4 press conference, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said that the recent events in Idlib were "certainly not helpful to the security situation at large, but we don't view it as a major setback or major blow to our ultimate objectives of training a moderate opposition."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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