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U.S. officials "might" meet Syria's Islamist fighters

Source: Reuters - Mon, 16 Dec 2013 03:16 PM
Author: Reuters
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ISTANBUL, Dec 16 (Reuters) - U.S. officials may meet commanders from Syria's Islamic Front this week, the State Department said, after the grouping took control of weapon depots belonging to the Western-backed opposition.

Over the weekend, Reuters reported that these talks were expected to take place but U.S. representatives based in Turkey were unable to give details about a visit from U.S. Syria envoy Robert Ford.

"State Department officials might be meeting with representatives of the Islamic Front this week," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday. She said that did not signify a change in U.S. support for the Syrian National Coalition, the moderate political opposition.

The Islamic Front alliance, a union of six major rebel groups, has overshadowed the more moderate Free Syrian Army brigades, which are led by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and backed by Western and Arab powers.

The Islamic Front has rejected the authority of the SMC, the main opposition's military wing. A week ago it took control of the SMC weapons depots at the border.

The reasons for seizing the bases remain unclear, with some saying the Islamic Front sought to help secure them against attacks from extremist groups while other reports suggest the takeover was acrimonious.

The State Department spokeswoman said in her email that Syria's political opposition had started to seek contact with the Islamic Front, a step that "we welcome as the opposition prepares for the Geneva 2 conference".

SMC leader General Salim Idris has been negotiating with Islamist rebel leaders since last week but it was not immediately clear what those contacts with the Syrian National Coalition might have been ahead of next month's international peace talks.

With five weeks to go, opposition members and Western diplomats share a worry that even if any political agreement was reached in Switzerland it would be futile if it is not backed by rebel fighters on the ground.

Monzer Akbik, chief of staff in the Syrian National Coalition, said the Islamic Front would be welcome to take part in Geneva, even though it has so far rejected participation.

"We would love it if the Islamic Front went to Geneva 2," said another coalition leader on condition of anonymity.

"We haven't offered them any seats but if they want to go we can figure out an arrangement with them. Geneva 2 can only be meaningful if it is supported by fighters in Syria which includes the Islamic Front."

Last week, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator set a deadline of Dec. 27 for the opposition and Damascus to name their delegations for next month's talks but opposition sources said there are no plans to make a final decision before then. (Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Alison Williams)

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