U.S. constrained by its unwillingness to talk to Islamists fighting against ISIS in Syria

The New York Times reports: A rebel group with thousands of fighters, political clout and close ties to key regional powers has emerged as one of the most powerful opposition forces in Syria in recent months. It has vowed to fight the Islamic State and called for engagement with the West.

But despite a long struggle by the United States to find a viable opposition in Syria to counter President Bashar al-Assad and fight the Islamic State, the Obama administration has shown no interest in working with the group, Ahrar al-Sham, or the Free Men of Syria.

The problem for the United States is Ahrar al-Sham’s grounding in militant Islam — a concern that has also dogged previous efforts to find partners in Syria.

Confronted yet again with the reality in Syria — where the government, the Islamic State and an array of insurgents are fighting a complex civil war — some analysts and former United States officials say it is increasingly clear that to effectively challenge the Islamic State and influence the future of the country will require at least cautiously engaging with groups like Ahrar al-Sham.

“They are in a gray zone, but in a civil war if you are not willing to talk to factions in the gray zone, you’ll have precious few people to talk to,” said Robert S. Ford, a former United States ambassador to Syria now at the Middle East Institute.

“I do not advocate giving any material support to Ahrar, much less lethal material assistance, but given their prominence in the northern and central fronts, they will have a big role in any peace talks, so we should find a channel to begin talking to them,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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